By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 30, 2006
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Here at the heart of the epidemic, where bird flu continues to rip through poultry flocks and more people now succumb to the virus than anyplace else on Earth, the lunchtime crowd at the Ayam Goreng Suharti restaurant can't get enough of the chicken.
The ravenous and the merely peckish cram nearly every one of the two dozen tables. They hunch over their plates, tearing off chunks of the succulent meat with their hands, licking their greasy fingers. While international health experts continue to sound the alarm about the prospect of pandemic and U.S. officials warn ominously that the disease could appear in American birds by fall, the overriding concerns at this Jakarta eatery turn on whether to order the chicken fried or grilled, with chili or spices; to have half a bird or to splurge on a whole one.
Indonesians have learned after two years to live with bird flu. Their now-sober response offers a lesson in levelheadedness to those abroad who are panicked or might soon be.
The initial scare over the mysterious new ailment faded in Indonesia as deaths became routine -- an average of almost one a week now. The virus proved exceptionally hard to catch, even for those who work closely with birds. Restaurants and butchers reported a recovery in their sales, and voracious Jakartans continue to crowd into food stalls along the roadsides, sheltered from the sun and exhaust fumes by large tarps adorned with cartoon chickens cheerfully advertising the house specialty.
"The bird flu cases don't affect us," said Elitha Tambunan, 38, nudging aside her plate, now bare but for a pile of stripped bones. "We're assured the chicken here is of the highest quality. It's a matter of trust."
Despite a tropical downpour hammering the roof and flooding the parking lot, Tambunan had ventured across the capital with two fellow office workers for a leisurely lunch at Ayam Goreng Suharti, part of a popular national chain. By the end of the day, the restaurant would go through about 300 chickens, all butchered on the premises. A pair of letters from animal health officials taped to the front door attested to their health.
Tri Warsono, 39, a stocky man with a long, slender mustache, was picking at the last scraps with his fingertips. "I'm not worried. I don't come here that often, but I eat chicken almost every day at my house," he said, dipping his fingers in a small water bowl to clean them. "Chicken is always on the menu in an Indonesian home."
Since avian influenza was first confirmed in Indonesian poultry at the start of 2004, the disease has struck flocks in two-thirds of the country's provinces, killing millions of birds. Government efforts to contain the outbreak have stumbled, with agriculture officials now acknowledging they cannot afford to pay for a national poultry vaccination program initially scheduled to begin next month.
The virus is also taking a mounting human toll. At least 32 Indonesians have contracted the disease since the initial human infection was confirmed in the middle of last year, and two-thirds have died. Though Vietnam still ranks first in overall cases, the disease has this year turned deadlier in Indonesia than at anywhere else. Yet the total number remains trifling.
"People here are coming to realize that most of us are not at great risk of getting the virus," said Steven Bjorge of the World Health Organization's office in Jakarta. "People are figuring out that on a day-to-day basis, this is not a real threat."
In Europe, where the virus was confirmed in wild birds across the continent this year, the consumption of chicken and eggs immediately tumbled. The discovery of a single dead swan infected with bird flu in Scotland this month sent Britain into a tizzy. The British media went on a war footing and callers flooded animal health hotlines with suspected sightings of sick birds, a likely preview of the American response should migratory fowl carry the disease to the West Coast as predicted.
Panic has also swept Egypt, where people responded by turning off their tap water after television stations broadcast news that infected carcasses were being dumped by farmers into the Nile River. In India, a farmers group reported this month that seven peasants had committed suicide after the disease destroyed their livelihoods.
In Indonesia, however, the issue of bird flu has all but vanished from the front pages of the newspapers. Peddlers hawking spicy chicken soup with coconut milk from pushcarts boast of a brisk business.
The U.S.-based restaurant chain KFC, which operates 242 outlets across the archipelago, recorded a slight decline in sales when bird flu was first reported two years ago, but they rebounded within a week, according to Adi S. Tjahjadi, customer relations manager. A colorful poster at the entrance to the KFC restaurant across from his office reads: "Eating chicken and eggs that was perfectly cooked is not dangerous. Remember, being alert is not being afraid." It informs customers of the precautions taken to properly prepare the chicken. But few who visit the restaurant allow themselves to note the details.
Indonesians have already surmised what researchers demonstrated in findings published last month: It's awfully tough to catch bird flu. Two teams of scientists found that the virus has trouble attaching to human cells in the nose, throat and upper airway, making infection unlikely.
Bjorge and other influenza specialists warn that the real danger would arise if the virus mutated into a new form easily passed from one person to the next. That could spark a global outbreak, killing millions in a matter of months.
At the Jatinegara market, a heavyset woman with a sweat-soaked T-shirt named Yulianti reported that sales from her chicken counter had dropped by half when the first Indonesian died from the virus in July. But they bounced back within two months.
"The media coverage of the first bird flu cases really blew them up big. Then it died down, so the people came back," said Yulianti, 30, with a broad smile, wiping her forehead with a rag as she peddled feet and livers off the tile countertop. "Indonesians have become resilient because the cases are such a regular thing."
Around her, shoppers strolled the muddy tile floors of the indoor market, perusing odd bits and pieces of chicken in the twilight of a few naked bulbs dangling from the high ceiling. Some recalled swearing off chicken for the first two weeks until the Indonesian government issued assurances that poultry properly cooked at more than 160 degrees was safe to eat.
Others, like Diah Febriantiene, 32, who was lugging three whole chickens and the innards of a fourth in a plastic bag, said she never stopped buying poultry. "My son won't eat fish," she said.
Public fears over bird flu have been overtaken by the anxieties of daily life in Indonesia: the doubling of fuel prices last year, recurring outbreaks of dengue fever, a food scare prompted by illicit use of formaldehyde as a preservative, floods, landslides and, in recent days, the threat of volcanic eruption. Other diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, have continued to claim far more casualties than bird flu has.
Nor are poultry deaths anything new. Most Indonesians grow up with chickens and are accustomed to seeing them fall over from mysterious causes each rainy season. Across an alley from the Jatinegara chicken market, some of the old-time butchers suggested the Indonesian government had concocted the story of bird flu to distract people from economic hardship.
"People don't really believe you eat chicken and then you die," said Nashirin, 50, a skinny butcher whose frequent smile revealed a set of crooked teeth. "They've been eating chicken forever, and they just keep doing what they've been doing."
His words were interrupted by the defiant cackling of scores of chickens awaiting their fate in dirty cages fashioned from bamboo and wire mesh. Several butchers, some barefoot and wearing only shorts, were squatting among the pools of blood, hacking apart the carcasses and untangling their insides with bare hands.
"There's no reason to worry about bird flu," said Mohamed Nur, 42, a burly man with a soiled green T-shirt and blood-splattered pants. "Not only don't we die, we don't even get sick. And we cut up chickens every day."
Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this article.