The scary reason Saudi farmers are kissing camels

Last week the Saudi government reported that traces of the MERS virus were found in camels tested in Saudi Arabia, but camel shepherds are not convinced there is a link. (Reuters)

MERS is very scary. This week, while avoiding the term global health emergency, the World Health Organization announced that the deadly viral infection was both serious and urgent. So far, there have been 571 confirmed cases of MERS; 171 of those people died from the disease.

There's one place, however, where the mood about MERS isn't scaring everyone. It's also the place where the infection was first reported in 2012 and where almost 500 recorded cases have been found so far: Saudi Arabia.

And the skepticism about the virus has taken a strange turn in Saudi Arabia, where people have begun kissing camels in response to MERS.

“Do sneeze in my face,” the farmer says in above video clip, according to a translation from Gulf News. “They claim camels carry the coronavirus," he continues in the video, which has been watched over 11,000 times.

On Twitter, photographs of men kissing and stroking their camels have been accompanied with comments disparaging MERS:

It seems a strange protest, but there's something behind it. Earlier this week, the Saudi government began a campaign to stop people from eating raw camel meat and liver or drinking unpasteurized camel milk. Experts argue that Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS' full name) or traces of it have been found in a large proportion of the camels tested in Saudi Arabia, and antibodies from the virus have even been found in camel populations in Spain's Canary Islands, thousands of miles away. Camels may not be the main source of MERS (many experts point the finger at bats), but they certainly seem like one big possibility.

For some in Saudi Arabia, avoiding camels is not such an easy task. One study from 2008 found that there were almost 900,000 camels in Saudi Arabia alone, with almost 15 million across other Arab states. The animals are a source of income for a large number of people, and popular too. "Camels in the kingdom are like dairy cows, beef cows, racehorses, pulling horses, beloved Labradors, and living daily reminders of holy scripture, all in one," Cynthia Gorney wrote for the National Geographic this week, noting that camels are featured honorably in the Koran.

Partly due to this fondness for camels, and partly due to a perceived lack of transparency from the Saudi government about MERS, a lot of people aren't totally convinced by the warnings about camels. Reuters reported from a Saudi camel market on Sunday and noted that only one person was wearing a mask as recommended. Some farmers are pointing out they have worked with camels for decades with no ill health.

Whether it's transmitted via camel or not, MERS is still a worrying situation for Saudi Arabia. It's a coronavirus like SARS, which is believed to have infected 8,273 people and led to 775 deaths in 2002-2003, and while its hard to say for sure at present, MERS may well be deadlier than its predecessor. Given that millions of Muslims are expected to travel to Mecca this October for Hajj, even officials in Saudi Arabia are beginning to wonder if the country is doing enough.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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