As the media focus on a global sneezing fit, the plight of people in Congo, Somalia, Burma and China is being ignored
Confirmation that Switzerland had suffered its first case of swine flu is big news today. According to the Swiss federal health department, a young man recently returned from Mexico exhibited symptoms of the virus. He is now tucked up in bed in Baden, north of Zurich, where it is hoped he will make a full recovery.
Not considered quite so newsworthy by perspiring international media infected by a global sneezing fit was the latest extreme violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Human Rights Watch, 35 civilians were killed, 91 women and girls raped, and hundreds of homes burned down in fresh reprisal attacks by Rwandan Hutu militias in North Kivu.
Additional, escalating killing is now feared in South Kivu as the Congolese army and allied militia deploy southwards, said Oxfam spokeswoman Rebecca Wynn. At least 100,000 people have been displaced in recent weeks amid continuing atrocities by all sides. In total, an estimated 1.4 million are homeless. Promised UN peacekeeping reinforcements have not arrived.
The sudden surge in first world swine fever has also overshadowed the plight of millions in the Horn of Africa, principally in Somalia where a reconfigured government is struggling to survive. Random violence, suicide attacks, kidnapping and armed robbery are daily problems facing the 3 million people currently dependent on food aid. Over 1 million Somalis are displaced, many living in insanitary tent cities. For them, flu is not a big issue.
A little-reported donors conference in Brussels last week coughed up $213m to help equip a new Somali national security force and African Union peacekeepers. But analysts worry the money and guns destined for the government will end up in the hands of Islamists and clan chiefs. “As much as 80% of [external support to the transitional federal government] has been diverted to private purposes, the arms market or opposition groups,” the UN’s Somalia monitoring group reported in December.
Government officials and soldiers simply sell weapons to the highest bidder, thereby circumventing the UN’s 1992 arms embargo, one analyst said. The UN report concluded: “On balance, contributions to the government security sector have represented a net source of insecurity in Somalia and an obstacle to stabilisation efforts.” In any case, a principal reason the donors pledged so much was not civilian security. They were motivated by another sensational, costly epidemic: Somali piracy.
The swine flu mega-story also threatens to block out Saturday’s first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people in Burma and caused extraordinary damage. Thanks in large part to the callousness of the country’s military junta, an estimated 500,000 people, including 200,000 children, are still living in makeshift shelters, living from hand to mouth and still, as before, at the mercy of the elements. Burma’s continuing misery has been compounded by the failure of international efforts to induce the generals to embrace political reform – a failure acknowledged by the EU this week when it extended limited sanctions for another year.
The Karen National Union, an opposition group, this week condemned plans for elections next year as a cruel parody. “Internal repression is at an all-time high, army attacks against civilians continue, there are more political prisoners than at any time for 20 years, all media are censored, there is no freedom of assembly or freedom of speech, political parties are severely restricted … and members who are not in jail face regular harassment,” it said in a statement that few seemed to hear.
For some governments, the flu frenzy makes every day a good day to bury bad news. Political repression in China, hardly a new topic, proceeds more smoothly when the world looks elesewhere. One example is the ongoing persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group. Last week, Zhang Xingwu, a retired physics professor from Shandong province, was jailed for seven years for possessing Falun Gong literature. Human rights experts say that up to 8,000 practitioners have been detained in the past year and at least 100 have died in custody.
For others, like the Israeli and Sri Lankan governments, flu victims provide a welcome diversion from military victims. While the Sri Lanka’s Tamil-bashing president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seems hell-bent on turning his country into a rogue state, Israel’s army has been quietly insisting its not dissimilar operations in Gaza in January were entirely in accordance with international law.
Human Rights Watch heaped scorn on Israel’s claims this week while the International Crisis Group warned that a “boiling” Gaza could soon explode again. But with the world busy holding its nose and examining the contents of its handkerchief, who’s listening?