The Guardian – The Brazilian government is telling its citizens to clean up their act, but the disease-spreading mosquito has proliferated due to the state’s negligence
Asilent villain less than a centimetre long is today the greatest whistleblower in Brazil. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is not only a vector of the Zika virus, but it is also drawing attention to chronic diseases that have still not been defeated by one of the 10 biggest economies in the world. TheAedes is unmasking a country characterised by huge inequalities, a fragile public health system and a shameful lack of basic sanitation, where less than half of the population has access to sewage collection. This mosquito also exposes a society contaminated by a religious morality that oppresses women.
In 2015 “whistleblower” became one of the words most frequently uttered by Brazilians. Those arrested as part of the so-called operation Lava Jato (carwash), which is investigating the deals between major contractors and the government, seemed to be dictating the course of events in the country. With each new revelation the power game shifted. So much has been said about theimpeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, now less likely than last year, and the country’s economic quagmire, but it is a long-legged insect that is currently headline news in Brazil.
Since the probable, but still not yet proven, link between the Zika virus in pregnancy and microcephaly in babies was established, this mosquito has been worming its way into the news and public consciousness. This was even the case during the recent carnival, a festival that remains virtually untouched by bad news stories, and during which Brazilians satirise and laugh at issues that make them cry throughout the rest of the year.
The Olympics which, like the 2014 World Cup, was hoped to be the symbolic crowning moment when Brazil ceased to be a country of the future and became a present-day success story, was first tainted by the political and economic crisis. Now the Games are being haunted by a winged creature that once again is warning us that the past has not been left behind. There are now doubts about whether the estimated 400,000 tourists will materialise.
What kind of country can be denounced by a mosquito? For a start, it is a country where Arthur Chioro, a doctor trained in the field of public health, was removed from the ministry of health at the moment when the ministry most needed to be led by a public health physician. At that time, last September, the dengue epidemic, also caused by the Aedes aegypti, was reaching tragic proportions: in 2015 there were over 1.6 million likely cases and the number of related deaths increased by more than 80%.
Against that backdrop, the president handed over control of the department of health – the ministry with the largest budget – to a politician from the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, which Rousseff needed to appease in order to pass government bills in congress and stave off the threat of impeachment. Political horse-trading thus resulted in a public health specialist being replaced by the psychiatrist and career politician Marcelo Castro.
Faced with the link between Zika and microcephaly, the new health secretary has come out with a collection of bizarre statements. Castro declared that “sex is for amateurs, pregnancy for professionals”. He said that women protect themselves less than men from mosquitoes “because they expose their legs”. He stated that he “hoped women would catch Zika” before they reached a fertile age, since “that way they would be immunised” and would not need a vaccine. But perhaps the most damning of all his statements was the following warning: that the epidemic may give rise to “a handicapped generation in Brazil”.
The Aedes mosquito has proliferated in Brazil due to the negligence of the state: an inadequate sewage system, poor management of waste, precarious urban development and the difficulties a section of the population faces in accessing drinking water, making it necessary to store it. The distribution of the number of suspected cases of microcephaly linked to the Zika virus, according to the Brazilian Association of Public Health, shows that those affected are the poorest members of society, who live in dramatic socio-environmental circumstances.
The quality of the response to the Zika epidemic, and to a possible generation of people with microcephaly, will determine the near future in Brazil. It could be an opportunity to tackle chronic problems for which solutions have always been postponed. Improving the living conditions of the population, with effective public policies and procedures, is the most efficient way of eradicating the mosquito’s breeding grounds.
Official discourse, however, holds the individual citizen responsible for containing an epidemic that has only taken on such proportions because the authorities have proved to be incapable of moving beyond palliative measures. On Saturday, the government promoted a “national day of action to combat the Aedes aegypti”, a high-profile operation involving more than 200,000 soldiers inspecting homes.Rousseff led a rally wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “A mosquito is not stronger than an entire country.”
The operation generated much media attention. But believing that it is possible to combat this mosquito, mainly by urging the population to use repellent, and to wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts, or blaming the citizen who leaves a small pot of water in the corner of his house, is irresponsible. The biggest challenge is not to defeat the whistleblower, but to change the structure that allows it to exist.
The mosquito is not only “whistleblowing” on Brazil, but it is also distorting the world’s priorities. Malaria, tuberculosis and Chagas disease do not become a “public health emergency of international concern”, as the World Health Organisation has declared the Zika virus to be.
The decisive factor – as outlined by Deisy Ventura of the Institute of International Relations at the University of São Paulo, who researches the links between law and health – is not the disease itself, but when it travels beyond the place that it should be confined to, namely poor countries. In this case, Zika has become a global emergency by threatening the brains of children from rich countries. This long-legged insect also highlights the ethical fragility of the powerful sapiens.
• Translated by Lisa Shaw