After the first case of swine flu was recorded in Egypt, the government ordered the immediate cull of all pigs in the country. However, it has since been revealed that the disease spreads through humans, not animals.
Some think there were ulterior motives for the slaughter.
Most people don’t give a second thought to the trash they throw out. But for Melk Frances, other people’s waste is his bread and butter. Born into a family of garbage collectors, he grew up playing on the rubbish heaps of southern Cairo.
He and some sixty thousand others collect the city’s leftovers.
Until recently, his job was made easier with the help of thousands of pigs.
“We used to have about 35 thousand pigs here. They’d help us a lot to get rid of the rubbish,” Frances said.
“They’d eat all the food scraps, but after we killed them, we now have all this rubbish that we don’t know what to do with”.
A month ago the junkyard was swarming with pigs. But after Egypt became the first African country to record a case of swine flu, President Hosni Mubarak ordered all the country’s pigs to be culled. More than a quarter of a million were killed.
However the irony is that the World Health Organization says it was a mistake, and animal welfare groups say the mass cull will have little impact.
What’s more, nearly all of the people with swine flu in Egypt are foreigners from abroad.
“People were offered compensation – about forty dollars per pig,” said Aiman Abd Elmaguied, a local journalist. “But a lot of people actually didn't kill their pigs. Instead they smuggled them out of Cairo through the mountains”.
Pigs are raised mostly in Egypt’s Christian neighborhoods, because the majority of the country is Muslim, which means eating pork is forbidden for them.
Some say this is simply a smokescreen – a convenient way of discriminating against the country’s minority Christian community. But among the garbage collectors, people are too afraid to say this on camera.
Shehata Ebrahim, a local community leader, grew up among the scavengers of Cairo’s slums to become his community’s representative to government. On any one day he oversees the collection of seven thousand tons of rubbish.
“The whole country was very angry that we killed our pigs,” Ebrahim said.
“They made up half the animals we have. There are about fifteen to twenty million Christians in Egypt, and each year about twenty-five million tourists come here. We all eat pork. But it’s from God to find diseases in pigs, it’s his wish”.
On the streets, however, the reaction is mixed.
“It was a very good decision to kill all the pigs. I want to thank our government for doing it,” said one local.
But another woman argued: “I don’t believe we have any swine flu in Egypt. It’s all just politics.”
Little more than six hundred cases of swine flu have been reported across the Middle East. Egypt is the second-worst hit, after Israel. Officials fear the epidemic will grow.
It can’t get much worse for the garbage workers of Zebaleen. They're received none of the government's promised compensation. They’re without their pigs, and the threat of swine flu is as real as ever.