Today, mosquito invaders are turning up with increasing regularity from Washington DC to Strasbourg, challenging the notion that the diseases they carry will remain confined to the tropics. Ironically, humans have rolled out the red carpet for the invaders by transporting them around the world and providing a trash-strewn urban landscape that suits them to perfection.
Leaders must demonstrate a combination of empathy and competence. The more serious the crisis grows, the higher the stakes. For politicians who are in government, the cost of failure could prove politically fatal. Ineptness in confronting Zika will magnify the impact of their perceived weakness. But even those out of government, especially those who are currently candidates for high office, will need to manage the problem with great care. For now, it is largely Latin American and Caribbean leaders who are facing the demands of dealing with Zika.
The epicenter of the outbreak is in Brazil, where the disease may have arrived from Africa, brought by fans attending the 2014 World Cup. The timing of the crisis in Brazil gives it a potentially enormous political impact. Zika comes at the intersection of several important developments.
First, President Dilma Rousseff is fighting for her political life. She is trying to avoid impeachment, and her approval ratings have sunk into single digits, which could make her handling of Zika make-or-break for her. Second, the country is entering its annual Carnival period, a nation-wide, week-long street party, which could make it easy for the virus to spread more rapidly. Third, Brazil is preparing to host the Olympic Games this summer. This means that if the spread is not contained, the cost in tourism revenue could bring another blow to the already struggling Brazilian economy. In fact, you can count Brazil's current economic brittleness as the fourth item on the list. And yet, Zika does not bring only political downside.
Like all crises, the virus has the potential to repair political careers. And if there is one political career that could use some repairing these days, it is Rousseff's. It is no secret that having an external enemy can work wonders for an embattled leader. The enemy is not usually a mosquito, but Zika and its vector might just do. Presidents and Kings have long known they can from facing outside enemies, in the form of the familiar rally-round -the flag effect seem during times of war. A well-managed war against Zika might just produce a sense of national unity and common purpose that could boost the standing of Brazil's leader.
So is it time to wipe out mosquitoes altogether? Aggressive action in the 1950s and 1960s, including the use of the pesticide DDT, certainly pushed them back for a while. Today, genetic modification, radiation and targeted bacteria are being considered. Trying to eliminate all mosquitoes, however, would make no sense, since there are 3,549 species and fewer than 200 bite humans.
The strategy is to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, distribute insecticide and give help to families of afflicted children. The outbreak also has the potential to bring change on another level, challenging the calculus on politically charged social issues, as is already happening on the issue of abortion.
Par Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Expert