A  chicken destined for a Christmas meal flaps her wings as she is tethered for residents of Phillipi, Cape Town, South Africa.
A chicken destined for a Christmas meal flaps her wings as she is tethered for residents of Phillipi, Cape Town, South Africa. - 
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SCOTT JAGOW: Today, President Bush unveils how the government would respond in the event of a bird flu pandemic. And how businesses should prepare. For example, the worst-case scenario assumes 40 percent of the workforce would be absent at some point. Ann Beau-Shane at the US Chamber of Commerce says that's a planning challenge for you.

ANN BEAU-SHANE:"We've heard it described several times as sort of a global blizzard that will last for 12 months and again that's a planning challenge, you know. It's not going to just be, you know, a couple of days."

SCOTT JAGOW: While avian flu is still a big "if" here, other parts of the world have already been battling outbreaks in their bird populations. In Africa, chickens are not only food, they're also an insurance policy against hard times. Reporter Suzanne Marmion lives in Malawai where she keeps some chickens of her own:

SUZANNE MARMION: My favorite hen is named Cordon Bleu.

[ sound of hen clucking ]

She actually is blue, a blue-gray soft swirl of feathers like the San Francisco fog. A sentimental way to describe a hen, but Cordon Bleu is one of my wedding chickens.

[ sound of African wedding song ]

I married in Lilongwe last year. In Malawi, it's traditional for a groom's family to give his wife chickens.

ALICK NKHOMA: "It's something that is part of our culture."

Alick Nkhoma is the deputy head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Malawi. He says long after the wedding, Africa's chicken-giving tradition continues.

ALICK NKHOMA: "Even today if I go to visit my mother-in-law, whatever meal they prepare will not be complete unless they slaughter a chicken for me. Maybe even two if I'm there for three days. Yeah."

But beyond the cultural value of a chicken, it's also an economic safety net. In Malawi and many other African nations, hundreds of thousands of people live on less than a dollar a day and one chicken can be worth at least three days pay, especially for the many rural Africans.

ALICK NKHOMA: "Their keeping of the chicken is like, can I call it a bank, call it social security. Whereby anytime you have a problem, you can easily either kill the chicken or sell it off. So it's very important."

...important because of chronic hunger problems in Africa. And for the many who depend on better nutrition because they have HIV/AIDS. Africa is already reeling from that and other pandemics. It's ill-equipped to handle another one.

Ibrahim Geshersh Ahmed monitors bird flu for Nigeria's government.

IBRAHIM GESHERSH AHMED:"It's worrisome. It is."

But he points out Nigeria was able to wipe out the flu by culling tens of thousands of chickens. In the process, though, Nigeria sacrificed its buddingchicken export industry and cost its economy $300 million.

The country was criticized for compensating people too little for culling birds. Instead, some Nigerians sold their sick animals to neighboring Niger, and spread the flu there.

Still, many countries on the continent have no compensation plans in place at all — despite the high value most Africans place on their chickens.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, I'm Suzanne Marmion for Marketplace.