Brasília / Bloomberg
Zika is a rarity in Brazil: a crisis that isn’t widely blamed on Dilma Rousseff’s government. And a mobilization against mosquitoes may even help the president climb out of a political hole.
In the northeastern town of Limoeiro, corruption scandals and a deepening recession have eroded support for Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. But the town in Pernambuco state is also at the center of Brazil’s viral epidemic. Glecya Aparecida Fernandes de Melo, a local lab technician whose whole family has fallen ill, says people there are signing up for government initiatives to combat the disease, rather than blaming politicians or organizing protests.
“We need to put aside this political bickering and be more united in the education campaign, or else this outbreak will get worse,” Fernandes said. “We have to take back our city from the mosquito.”
Zika has sparked global alarm, but there’s a domestic silver lining for Rousseff, who is drafting Brazil’s soldiers, students and civil servants in an effort to halt the pandemic’s spread. The president entered 2016 under threat of impeachment by Congress, after a year of political and economic crises that cost the country its investment-grade credit rating. Her appeal to national unity in a health emergency represents a chance to shift the focus, according to Americo Freire, a contemporary history professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
“Rousseff is trying to present herself as the head of state,” Freire said. “This terrible public health crisis could be an element to give her some political and moral support.”
The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency over the Zika virus, which has spread to more than 20 countries. In Brazil, it’s been linked to about 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and developmental problems.
As global health agencies raised the alert, Brazilian views of the crisis began to change, said Humberto Costa, the Workers’ Party leader in the Senate. Costa, a former health minister under Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is from Pernambuco and visited Limoeiro in December.
“When this disease first appeared, it seemed to be something that was just in Brazil, just in the northeast, just in Pernambuco, and there was more of a tendency to blame those in charge,” he said. “Now it has an international dimension. The mosquito isn’t choosing the local or federal government.”
While Brazil’s regional and national administrations should be held responsible for sanitation measures that would have controlled mosquito populations, Zika isn’t a “unique failing of Brazil’s health system,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas.
Authorities aren’t escaping blame entirely — especially the current Health Minister Marcelo Castro, appointed last year as part of a deal to win support from his party for a vote in Congress.
When the connection between Zika and microcephaly began drawing more attention in November, Castro’s apparently flippant response — “sex is for amateurs, pregnancy is for professionals” —angered many Brazilians. His confession that Brazil is “badly losing” the war on mosquitoes wasn’t well- received either — especially with Rio de Janeiro due to host the Olympic Games in six months’ time. Any setback to such a high-profile event would be a fresh blow to Brazil’s shrinking economy, and Rousseff’s government.
“Speaking with a clear voice, articulating a good strategy from the government will be particularly important here,” said Jim Hutton, chief security officer of travel advisory company On Call International. “There’s a lot of misinformation flying around.”
Rousseff’s chief of staff Jaques Wagner said this month that it’s “not recommended” for pregnant women to travel to Rio for the Olympics. He said there’s no chance Brazil will cancel the games.
Barring a disaster of that magnitude, there’s little room for Zika to further erode Rousseff’s already record-low support, said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. However, Rousseff still hasn’t resolved the budget problems and congressional battles that will continue to leave her politically vulnerable, Roett said.
The country is mired in what is expected to be its deepest recession in more than a century, and analysts predict Brazil’s economy will be one of the world’s worst in 2016, second only to Venezuela. Only 9 percent of Brazilians said Rousseff’s administration was good or great, according to a CNI/Ibope poll conducted in December. Since then, though, the impeachment process has lost momentum and Rousseff — who can’t run for president again — now looks more likely to survive, lawmakers and analysts say.
ARMY OF HEALTH
Zika could be a defining issue of her second term, due to end in 2018. Stories about the human cost of the disease, from abandoned babies to clandestine abortions, are starting to share some of the media space usually devoted to corruption probes.
In a televised address to the nation on February 3, Rousseff called for Brazilians to unite and form a “great army of peace and health.” Fernandes, in Limoeiro, said she’ll serve — by joining the soldiers and health workers planning to go door-to-door across the country on February 13, checking for the standing water where the disease-carrying insects spawn. “Everyone has the responsibility for fighting mosquitoes,” she said. “Not just the politicians.”