H7N9 avian influenza could affect the retail and restaurant sectors — as well as the economy as a whole — if the virus becomes transmissible among humans, the Ministry of Economic Affairs said yesterday.
If the bird flu became more serious and continued for three months, the nation’s GDP is forecast to drop by 0.004 percentage points, Minister of Economic Affairs Chang Chia-juch (張家祝) said, citing research conducted by the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (台灣經濟研究院).
“If more cases [of H7N9 infection] are found, the nation’s economy might be hurt to some degree,” Chang told the legislature’s Economics Committee. “The flu would also hit the nation’s consumption, production and export-related sectors if the flu outbreak gets worse.”
“The ministry has set up a special task force to monitor the situation. We aim to be well-prepared to prevent the disease from spreading,” Chang said.
In addition, local facial mask manufacturers have agreed to increase production to 800,000 masks a day from 500,000, he said, in an attempt to ease concerns over a shortage.
However, lawmakers cast doubts on the ministry’s estimates of economic damage due to H7N9 bird flu.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) said that the estimate of “0.004 percentage points is quite small, but there are people saying we should not underestimate the bird flu?”
Taiwan suffered an economic loss of NT$64.3 billion (US$2.18 billion) 10 years ago because of the SARS outbreak, Ting added.
He said the government’s efforts to counter an avian influenza epidemic might be more challenging this time, because the number of people traveling across the Taiwan Strait is now 10 times higher than it was a decade ago.
Citing the institute’s research, Chang said that in the early stages of the outbreak of SARS, H5N1 or H1N1 in the past, the economic impact from the epidemic was “very minimal.”
The government last week decided to advance a ban on the slaughter of live poultry in traditional markets to May 17, from its original date of June 17, as a preventive measure after the nation reported its first confirmed H7N9 infection on Wednesday last week.
Neither Chang nor Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) offered any estimate about the ban’s impact on vendors of live poultry.
Vendors offering live poultry slaughtering at traditional markets are encouraged to sign contracts with legal slaughterhouses and to change their selling practices, Chen told the committee.
In addition, consumers are advised to purchase meat products processed by legal slaughterhouses, he added.
Chen said the government would refund poultry sellers for birds culled for carrying avian influenza, especially H7N9.