- JLAG Perspectives: Zika Anxieties and a Role for Geography
The Zika virus epidemic in the Americas persists, with no signs of waning. Every day, fresh details emerge about its pathology and transmission: possible links between Zika infection and microcephaly in newborn babies and a rare nervous system disorder, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, along with evidence that the virus can be spread through sexual contact, not just a mosquito’s bite. In Brazil—so far the country most impacted by the epidemic—rumors about the causes of Zika spread quickly through social media (and old-fashioned word-of-mouth), threatening well-intentioned efforts to control the disease, which are considered crucial to the country’s preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics (Barbara 2016, Carneiro and Costa 2016). Meanwhile, the North American media and general public react with alarm, advancing their own theories about the roots of Zika.
Several narratives have emerged about the origins of the Zika epidemic in Latin America, and how to control it. These stories reflect anxieties about population growth, environmental change, globalization, and poverty. Most Latin Americanist geographers are not public health experts; however, as regional specialists with an interest in human-environment relations, we can help shape these narratives, to make them more accurate, complete, and just.
One type of narrative, the neo-Malthusian one, should be quite familiar to geographers. Readers’ comments on Zika stories in the online version of the New York Times (on January 28 and February 1, 2016) reveal the surprising persistence of the overpopulation narrative to explain environmental and public health calamities in the “developing world” (Tavernise 2016; Tavernise and McNeil 2016). As one reader put it, bluntly: “Too many people. One of the main purposes of viruses, parasites, bacteria and micro pathogens is to control animal populations and maintain homeostasis. This is not a deliberate mission it is just the way the natural order works. Our human population is way too large for the planet so it will be reduced.” Due particularly to the presumed link between Zika and microcephaly, calls for increased access to birth control and abortion in Latin American countries, not just for the sake of short-term risk reduction in the face of Zika, but also long-term population control, have abounded in recent months.
Such arguments reflect outdated fears of Latin America as ground zero for a Malthusian “population bomb.” Regional population growth is low, because—whatever the Pope and the Catholic Church have to say about it—contraceptive use is now widely practiced in Brazil and across Latin America. In fact, Brazil has a lower fertility rate than [End Page 157] that of the United States, less than two children per woman of child-bearing age, below the natural replacement rate (Forero 2012). Unfortunately, there is a shadowy history of North American obsessions with “Latin” fertility and control of Latina women’s bodies, from the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, to the neo-Malthusianism of the 1960s, to forced sterilization of Hispanic women in Los Angeles in the 1970s, as recently revealed by the documentary “No Más Bebés” (Tajima-Peña 2016). With breakneck speed and in blatant disregard of demographic realities, Zika has been appropriated to support these old anxieties about overpopulation, echoed in aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric of the US presidential campaign in 2016.
Somewhat more convincingly, Zika has also been incorporated quickly into narratives of global climate change impacts. For decades, it has been widely reported that rising temperatures and longer warm seasons will probably increase the reproductive rate for disease vectors and parasites, extend the season of disease transmission in temperate climates, and expand the range of “tropical” diseases. This explanation is compelling, especially when you consider the Aedes aegypti mosquito carries other viruses, such as dengue and chikungunya. Overshadowed by news of Zika, Argentina and Brazil are experiencing their worst epidemics of dengue in years (and dengue is more deadly than Zika) (Czubaj 2016). Climate change will undoubtedly exacerbate vector-borne disease problems in Latin America (Kahn 2016), and make it harder to prevent diseases like Zika or dengue from establishing a permanent foothold in the United States.
But, it’s also important to...