Zika: A Preventable Epidemic and Crisis for Women

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In what has proven to be a perfect storm of climate change, underfunded health care, and poor infrastructure, the Zika virus has become an epidemic in Latin America. What was previously classified as a relatively rare sub-Saharan mosquito-borne disease has spread across the Atlantic and is having devastating impacts on children whose mothers contract the disease while pregnant.

Brazil has been hit the hardest and has seen a 400% increase in microcephaly, a disorder linked to Zika, that manifests as a small, underdeveloped head in newborns and leads to many further complications throughout their lives. Almost a year after a spike in Zika cases was recorded, the government is finally moving into “action” by advising mothers to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes and to postpone pregnancies for up to two years. This upside down and insufficient approach exposes the priorities of Dilma government, which has budgeted $18 billion for the Olympic Games while only allotting $300,000 to contain the spread of Zika.

The Zika virus is spread primarily by mosquitoes, which have become an unavoidable fact of life in Brazil mostly due to poor infrastructure. Mosquitoes breed in standing water and also spread diseases like malaria. Public infrastructure, especially closed sewers and clean running water are hugely important to eliminating mosquito habitat and the spread of infections.

The poverty of favelas – a Brazilian word used to describe the shanty town villages poor people are pushed into on the outskirts of wealthy cities — have been a boon to mosquito reproduction. Poor investment in trash collection and general infrastructure in these zones leads to polluted sites that gather stagnant water and nurture mosquito larvae.

Combined with increased temperatures associated with climate change, these conditions have vastly expanded the terrain and population size of disease-carrying mosquitoes. In addition, the changes in the climate have led to increased droughts and Brazilian families have responded by keeping barrels of standing water due to lack of access to clean running water.

Women’s Rights

Reproductive rights are also a pressing topic for Brazilians: abortion is punishable by imprisonment and contraception, while already vastly unaffordable for most citizens, has been under attack. There has been some pushback against these policies in light of the current crisis. Activists are petitioning the government to relax abortion law, publicly stating for “abortion and reproductive rights in general, that we have a social class split in Brazil – wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant.”

In Brazil and many of the other affected countries a frightening picture is developing for working class women. With the restrictive family planning laws, many women have turned to permanent sterilization: 40% of Brazilian women already use this form of birth control. Without access to hormonal birth control or abortion, women will likely turn ever increasingly to this method during the Zika epidemic, leading to an entire generation of poor women who will never be able to have a family.

Adequate housing and access to clean water are also human rights, and massive investment in publicly owned water and public health care would be the most effective ways to protect Brazilians from the devastating impacts of the Zika virus. Socialist Alternative supports movements in Brazil that demand fully funding human services instead of the enriching of developers and private investors through dumping billions of dollars into the Olympics. These movements need to challenge the corrupt political system and the domination of foreign corporations.

This epidemic was preventable! Systematic impoverishment in Latin America has laid the groundwork for the explosive spread of disease-ridden mosquitoes while billions of dollars from resource rich countries like Brazil are taken to further enrich the global 1%. Crises like this are an extreme demonstration of the importance of legal and affordable access to healthcare and family planning resources for all women.

Capitalism will always prioritize profit over the wellbeing of working class people, leading to climate change and further health crises. Only by building mass movements and claiming the wealth that we produce can we build a just society where housing and health needs for the many are fulfilled. Only by building a socialist society can we ensure mass access to vital resources.

Socialist Alternative’s sister organization in Brazil, Socialismo Liberdade e Revolução, is part of the fight for high quality housing and fully funded public health care. Check out Socialismo Liberdade e Revolução and the Committee for a Workers International coverage: http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/7472.

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