By: Gemma Edwards | Infographics and translations by Geraldy Alexander Abraham, Tesalonica, Dyah Resmi Salsabila, and Gisella Olivia. Gemma Edwards traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.
On a farm filled with pigs and piglets in North Sumatra, a farmer is panicking. He’s found that many of his pigs are infected with a disease, and it could soon spread to the rest of his herd, destroying his livelihood. Worse, it’s been spread through the social media that there’s a deadly pork disease that’s infecting humans. Scared, he kills the diseased pigs and sneaks to the river and throws the dead bodies into the water, ridding himself of the problem. But for the locals of the area, this is a vital water source. The stench is unbearable, and they see hundreds of carcasses floating as more farmers do the same. Worse, the rotting flesh might be harboring bacteria that could make them sick. It’s a horrible thought; that fear about a deadly disease might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This situation is repeatedly occurring in North Sumatra. Ironically, even though pig viruses cannot harm humans, this fear-driven response may end up harming Sumatrans by creating a public health risk and inflaming community tensions.
Much of the fear has been kindled by a WhatsApp hoax, which has been spreading across Indonesia since September 2019, which claims that pork diseases could infect humans, leading to debilitating diseases. Accompanied by disturbing images of hideous, painful lesions on both pigs and human ‘victims,’ the hoax warned Indonesians to avoid pork meat at all costs.
Areas in Indonesia affected by swine diseases. Infographic by Geraldy Alexander Abraham, Tesalonica, DyahResmi and Gisella Olivia.
The hoax has gone viral in areas with high pork consumption, such as Bali, Papua, Sulawesi and Sumatra. Ridwan, a shopkeeper from Palu, Central Sulawesi, saw the hoax spread into his grade school alumni WhatsApp group.
“I was casually browsing the group chat when I saw the four pictures my friend uploaded,” he says. “Curious, I downloaded those pictures. It took me a while to process, but I knew for a fact that there are no cases of transmittable virus from pork to human.”
Realizing it was a hoax, Ridwan researched further. He found the images have been circulating since 2015 and were related to different diseases, such as cysticercosis.
Although there has been an outbreak of hog cholera in Indonesia, with more than 10,000 pigs dying from the virus to date, and a smaller outbreak of African Swine Fever, Ridwan was able to identify that the pictures originated from outside the country.
People like Ridwan, who rigorously fact check what they see on social media, are in the minority. Few Indonesians take this additional step to verify the facts before they forward these types of messages, and so the hoax has continued to spread and has caused mass panic, said Aribowo Sasmito, co-founder of the MAFINDO fact-checking non-government organization.
“Because Indonesian people are known to be family-oriented and we care about each other, especially about family members and friends, whenever we receive misinformation about health-related issues, then without further research we are concerned that our friends or family will also get the disease,” Aribowo says.
“It’s the primary motive, but unfortunately it’s the wrong way to do it.”
Aribowo Sasmito checks the facts of a suspected hoax. Photo by Gemma Edwards
Education is the most important aspect of reducing these types of hoaxes because even though people may have good intentions, sharing such messages can “cause a panic hysteria,” he says.
This type of hysteria has been evident recently in Medan, North Sumatra, where concerns about diseased meat have led to panicked farmers to dump dead pigs improperly.
“We see rotten carcasses everywhere, in the rivers, in the trash bins, everywhere,” the Head of North Sumatra Health Agency, Alwi Mujahid, says.
Residents report seeing massive numbers of carcasses in the Bederan River in Terjun, and Lake Siombak in Medan Marelan.
"There are hundreds of pig carcasses floating along the river, contaminating the water,” one resident recently told The Jakarta Post. “No one can drown them because of the stench.”
While the diseased meat cannot be carried to humans, the decomposing matter poses a significant health risk, Alwi Mujahid warns.
“The carcasses are supposed to be buried or burned. Since they're thrown to the river, they polluted the environment,” he says.
“Carcasses are a place where bacteria grow. They are rotting. If they're thrown into the rivers, they will pollute the water.”
Citizens in the 14 affected cities and districts where this has occurred are angry at the farmers for leaving the dead bodies in the environment, he says.
“Yes, they have suffered, but they’re making our lives miserable.”
Pollution in Indonesia's Rivers. Infographic by Geraldy Alexander Abraham, Tesalonica, DyahResmi and Gisella Olivia.
In early November last year, 4,071 pigs died after an outbreak of hog cholera, more formally known as Classic Swine Fever (CSF). By November 22, the number of pig deaths had more than doubled to 10,289, according to figures released by MulkanHarahap, Head of Animal Health and Husbandry in North Sumatra, in a media conference.
Officials have been vaccinating the pigs against pig cholera, however, incidents of African Swine Fever (ASF) are also affecting Indonesia’s pig population, and this is concerning because there is no vaccination against ASF.
This is particularly worrying Balinese people, because pork is deeply entwined in their culture and important to the indigenous community.
Indonesia’s statistics bureau has estimated that Indonesia produced 327,215 tons of pork meat last year, with Bali, a Hindu enclave, producing the most.
Pork products and the effects of the disease in Indonesia. Infographic by Geraldy Alexander Abraham, Tesalonica, DyahResmi and Gisella Olivia.
The impact will be huge at both an economic and cultural level, the Chairman of the Bali Pig Farmer Association (GUPBI), Ketut Hari Suyasa, forecasts.
“We do not want what happened in Medan to happen in other regions in Indonesia, especially Bali,” he says.
“Almost every traditional ceremony uses pork. Can you imagine if ASF outbreak occurs in Bali? Then there will be panic in our indigenous community.
“Local and national governments must work together to overcome the epidemic.”
Balinese tradition makes extensive use of pork in ceremonial settings. Photos from GUPBI.
Officials are considering culling all the pigs in the infected area to control the spread of the disease, meaning that as many as 1.2 million pigs could be destroyed, North Sumatra Governor Edy Rahmayaditoldjournalists.
The pig cholera and ASF outbreaks have brought their own major economic challenges, but hoaxes are exacerbating the problem by leading to panicked dumping of carcasses that could harm both residents’ health and community harmony.
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