Bird Flu: The Circulation of Life and Death in a Postspecies World

At the end of 2009, linguists around the world collected words to characterize the first decade of the new millennium.  “Aporkalypse” appeared at the top of their list, describing a swine-inspired end of days ushered in by the threat of bird flu. Though playful, this term points to a growing recognition that animals –and their diseases –have determining effects on human existence. Recent estimates suggest that over seventy percent of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic –or have their origins in animals. As self-proclaimed “virus hunter” Nathan Wolfe warns, we are living at the dawn of a new pandemic age, where “human infection by an animal virus may wipe out millions, or hundreds of millions, of people throughout the planet – permanently changing the face of humanity.” Conjuring images of mass destruction at the hands (or wings) of animals, pandemic prophecies bring our entanglements with other species into threatening relief.

Pandemic flu threats have been particularly visible in Vietnam, where highly pathogenic avian influenza –bird flu –is decimating poultry populations and causing alarming human fatality rates. Here, bird flu outbreaks correspond to shifting contours of people-poultry interaction.  Economic growth and rising income levels resulting from Doi Moi economic renovation policies have expanded poultry production and consumption since the early 1990s.  Backyard farms once populated by a handful of free-range birds are now sites of overcrowded flocks confined to diminishing spaces.  From these farms, ducks and chickens travel on the bicycles, boats, and motorbikes of independent farmers and traders themselves, or in the trucks of transporters connected to wholesale distributors.  The heightened movement of poultry across Vietnamese landscapes has opened up new and dangerous disease ecologies –particularly in urban wet markets where live animals from across the country engage in all manner of biological exchange. These trends translate to increased opportunities for viral transfer and reassortment between species.


Poultry transport, central Vietnam.
Household duck farm, Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam.

Vietnam was among the first countries to report outbreaks of bird flu in 2003, and has since suffered some of the heaviest losses to the disease. The country tops the list of reported poultry outbreaks and ranks third worldwide in terms of human fatalities. Compounding these casualties, the status of poultry production as a chief industry in Vietnam means that avian flu also threatens national economic health. In the first year of outbreaks alone, Vietnam lost one percent of its GDP as a direct result of avian flu. The scale of human, animal, and economic losses has made the country a locus for multinational interventions against the disease. To date, Vietnam has received the highest per capita amount of foreign avian flu aid of any country. Further, in contrast with pandemic flu strategies in places like the US, which focus on developing vaccines, drugs, and surveillance mechanisms for humans, Vietnam’s bird flu strategies target humans and animals simultaneously. An early official statement declared, “The Joint Vietnam Government-UN program was established to support an integrated … well-coordinated response to … controlling avian influenza in animals and responding to the threat of a possible human pandemic.” Bringing animals into the fold of human health in unprecedented ways, the Vietnam provides an ideal site for investigating zoonotic governance beyond species distinctions.

My ethnographic study of bird flu management in Vietnam examines the intersections of humans and animals in contemporary global health. Between 2009-10, I traced a series of bird flu interventions from their development in policy arenas in the capital, Hanoi, through to their application among chicken farmers in a province in the northern Red River delta, and among duck farmers in a province in the southern Mekong delta. I looked specifically at strategies that took place at the “human-animal interface” –that is, strategies that altered existing relationships and interactions between people and poultry.

In my book manuscript, provisionally entitled, Bird Flu: The Circulation of Life and Death in a Postspecies World, I draw from this research to build a framework for analyzing health from a postspecies perspective. Bringing medical anthropology into conversation with a longstanding disciplinary interest in human-animal relationships, I foreground poultry in the processes through which human life is understood and safeguarded. This approach projects biopolitics across species to consider the role that poultry play in shaping human health and vitality in Vietnam: from the discipline of individual bodies, to the administration of populations, to the control of social relations. In doing so it illustrates animals’ essential role in the apprehension and regulation of human life and raises new questions about how to live with other species in contemporary pandemic contexts.

Providing the first long-term ethnographic study of avian flu management in the poultry sector, I examine how bird flu interventions manifest in both scientific arenas and poultry producing communities. Tracing interventions from policy to practice, I illustrate the various forms of expertise that intersect and collide as health workers engage with poultry producers. I situate this work in a consideration of the role of poultry in Vietnamese rural ideologies and cultural practices, adding historical and moral considerations to political economic analyses of disease emergence and spread. Taken together, this research seeks to offer a nuanced, ethnographically grounded discussion of the ways that species co-constitute one another in a variety of social and institutional settings over time. Not only do these interspecies relationships affect zoonotic management practices, but they also shape the ways in which species coexist in everyday life.

I trace the primary avian flu strategies in Vietnam to illustrate how these health efforts seek to prevent a human pandemic through calculated interventions at the interface of people, poultry, and pathogens. I suggest that inasmuch as these interventions operate on distinct forms of reasoning and practice, they posit heterogeneous, ambivalent, and conflicting species divisions. For instance, in targeting the influenza virus, mass poultry vaccinations molecularize people/poultry relations –inoculating poultry to prohibit viral transfer to humans. On the other hand, risk-mapping interventions spatialize interspecies relationships, surveilling and graphing contact zones among people and poultry. Going further, behavior change campaigns discipline interspecies relationships by cultivating responsibilities among people living with poultry. And finally, biosecurity interventions standardize interspecies relationships, establishing spatial and temporal divisions between people and poultry in farming communities.

Household chicken vaccination, northern Vietnam.
Duck weigh-in, southern Vietnam.

Yet, in tracing the implementation of these strategies in rural communities, my project reveals how avian flu control strategies encounter existing relationships between species, which express alternative ways of ordering and valuing human and nonhuman lives. In this national context, poultry figure into a variety of biological, social, cultural, ecological, and economic relationships with humans and other organisms. These relationships express multiple concerns, including, among others: personal profit, ritual performance, social advancement, agricultural production, and moral conduct. The dynamic role of poultry in Vietnamese society therefore confronts instrumental global health strategies that would relegate ducks and chickens to purely biological or economic interactions with humans and other creatures. In short, bird flu management confronts a complex environment where poultry play a dominant, yet changing, part in local lifeworlds.

Chicken slaughter, northern Vietnam.

Diverse ideas and practices circulate in Vietnamese bird flu management, which has important consequences for the definition of bird flu risks and their appropriate management. From a health perspective, hierarchies of knowledge and expertise between veterinary and human health sciences have posed challenges in determining whose lives merit protection and optimization, and whose lives require intervention and control. For instance, while human health officials may favor safeguarding human life by culling thousands of poultry during an outbreak, veterinary officials (and farmers) may point to a lack of disease symptoms in flocks, and the economic import of poultry, as reasons for avoiding mass slaughter. Moreover, from an agricultural perspective, disagreements about how to develop Vietnam’s livestock economy in light of zoonoses augment these debates. Namely, in questions over how to increase the productivity and safety of livestock production without marginalizing the small farmers who continue to dominate the industry. These small examples point to the fact that differential ideas about the place of poultry in human biosocial life engender ambivalence in influenza management strategies.

Cockfight festival, Hanoi

Moving from policymaking arenas to everyday practice compounds the complexity and ambiguity of bird flu management. Poultry farmers in contemporary Vietnam inherit a hard-won history of independence from outside intervention, particularly in the context of agricultural production. In poultry producing communities, practical experience and phenomenological knowledge outweigh what farmers consider to be the overly theoretical orientation of veterinary “experts.” Poultry health, then, seldom falls under the purview of state agents and global consultants, but rather remains the right and responsibility of farmers themselves. Further, inasmuch as multinational actors increasingly participate in these interventions, new modes of political subjectivities emerging in Vietnam, wherein farmers both incorporate and resist global health discourses and strategies in their everyday interactions with animals. In the daily implementation of bird flu interventions, then poultry play an important role in shaping knowledge hierarchies and relationships between authorities and citizens in the country.

Taken together, these local trends signal contingent modes of governing humans and animals in global health orders. The bird flu interventions I document encounter, entrench, and transform existing ideas about human’s biological links with, and moral responsibilities toward, other species. In contrast to recent work celebrating multispecies entanglements and flourishings, then, this research suggests that human exceptionalism still matters, particularly in zoonotic situations where people’s vulnerability to animals sparks intense panic and dread. Rather than eschew notions of human mastery over nature, I show instead how actors mobilize and reconsider these notions as a means to cope with pandemic threats. The tenuous, shifting human/animal distinctions in bird flu management thus demonstrate efforts to capture and control the increasingly uncontrollable, the chaos of agentive viruses, migrating fowl, unstable ecologies, and transgressive people-poultry interactions.

In sum, my research reveals how poultry’s multifaceted role in Vietnamese society comes to complicate global health strategies, which seek to secure health through rationalized and calculated interventions on interspecies relationships. Ethnographic attention to these relationships reveals an unavoidable interdependence of people and poultry for biological existence, economic wellbeing, social networking, and ethical self-fashioning. At times people and poultry threaten each other’s lives; at other times they sustain them; and still at other times they infuse them with meaning and value. These rich and multifaceted interspecies relationships call into question the utility of a “One World, One Health” order, which implies by its very name a singular way of apprehending health and vitality, and a singular way of living, or coexisting, across species.


Natalie Porter is a postdoctoral fellow in the BioProperty Program at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford.  Her work examines intersections of pandemics, biomedicine, and multispecies relations. Focusing on avian flu, Natalie’s research combines analyses of laboratory practice with observations of poultry farmers and global health workers in Vietnam, Europe, and the United States. She is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the exchange of viruses and transgenic animals in global pandemic flu research.