[Marxism] Zika virus: Latin America’s ills compound crisis
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 29 08:35:04 MST 2016
FT.com, January 29, 2016 12:49 pm
Zika virus: Latin America’s ills compound crisis
Samantha Pearson in São Paulo
Isla de León, a slum on the outskirts of Cartagena on Colombia’s
Caribbean coast, is a lesson in how to manufacture and transmit the
mosquito-borne Zika virus. Ramshackle hovels with dirt floors, crooked
wooden walls and zinc roofs line sun-baked unpaved streets. In the rainy
season, conditions resemble the swamp on which the neighbourhood was built.
“Of course the mosquitoes are a problem, especially at night,” says
Ingrid Tordecillos, 24, pointing at the pools of green water that flank
her house, where flies skate across the surfaces.
She has already suffered from three attacks of Zika and two of her three
children have fallen ill from the virus, which has been linked to
devastating birth defects and neurological problems in adults.
Across the Amazon rainforest on the other side of the continent, Brazil
is readying 220,000 members of its armed forces to fight its own battle
against Zika, after more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly — babies born
with deformed, small heads — were recorded in the past four months.
The emerging epidemic, which has spread to 23 countries in the Americas,
could not have come at a worse time for the region. Reeling from the end
of the China-led commodities super cycle, Latin America has been accused
of being slow to combat the virus, which the World Health Organisation
warned this week was spreading “explosively” and could affect as many as
4m people in the Americas.
In Brazil — the origin of the region’s outbreak and the worst-hit
country — critics say the authorities’ inability to respond quickly by
co-ordinating simple measures such as checking homes for stagnant water
has only further exposed the country’s political and economic paralysis.
A few years ago Latin America’s biggest economy was considered part of
the solution to global financial ills and a model in battling epidemics
following its successful HIV/Aids programme in the 1990s. But on both
counts it is now part of the problem, says Paulo Sotero, director of the
Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“Facing a self-imposed economic calamity that obviously reduces funding
for healthcare, the country is deploying available resources, including
the armed forces, but faces difficulties to harness its capacity to
respond to a health emergency,” says Mr Sotero.
“Instead of offering solutions, the country has become the epicentre of
a problem that could be avoided by the use of basic preventive
strategies at the community level, in co-ordination with municipal,
state and federal agencies.”
Brazil’s defence ministry only announced a comprehensive plan on
Wednesday to combat the virus — including the deployment of the army,
navy and air force — following warnings from international bodies.
Other Latin American nations have proved equally helpless in the face of
the virus’s rapid spread, resorting to somewhat farcical bans on
procreation. In El Salvador the government has urged women to delay
pregnancy until 2018. In Colombia, which has the second-highest Zika
infection rate after Brazil, the health ministry has suggested couples
refrain from conception for six months. Jamaica has issued similar advice.
In Latin America, a predominantly Catholic continent where abortion is
largely banned and contraception not always readily available, it is a
naive strategy at best, say campaigners.
In Rio de Janeiro, authorities are putting their faith in the weather
gods. In less than 200 days more than a million tourists are expected to
descend on the city for the 2016 Olympic Games. While organisers say
they have been checking Olympic venues on a daily basis for mosquito
infestations, they hope the colder and drier weather in August will also
“I am worried, not just about the Olympics but I’m worried for the city
and for Brazil,” Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, told the Financial Times.
“But the Olympics comes at a time when the weather is drier and not a
high-frequency period for mosquitoes.”
The Olympics is not just a concern for Rio but for any country whose
citizens travel to the event. Researchers suspect that the Zika virus,
which was first identified in Uganda in 1947, arrived in Brazil only two
years ago with the influx of tourists for the World Cup, says Wilson
Savino, a researcher at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.
Scientists have linked Zika and microcephaly but it is not yet clear
that the virus alone is responsible for the surge in birth defects.
Fears have also grown over links with the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome,
which can cause paralysis and even death.
“Nobody knows two things still: why [Zika] spread so fast . . . and why
in Brazil there is such an increase in microcephaly,” says Mr Savino,
adding that it will probably be more than five years before a vaccine is
In the meantime, researchers are working on ways to test for the virus
as well as experiments to inhibit its transmission.
“This is a completely new health issue for the planet, nobody could have
expected this,” says Mr Savino. “The most important thing is not to say
that it took too long [to deal with the outbreak] . . . this is a global
health issue and it demands solidarity and co-operation.”
In the meantime some are taking drastic measures.
Patrícia and Rodolfo, a wealthy couple in their late 30s from São Paulo,
had been considering moving to New York but decided to bring forward
their plans so they can start a family.
“I don’t want to wait too much longer and who knows when they’ll get
this thing under control,” says Patricia.
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone, Benedict Mander and Andres
Schipani in Cartagena
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