The Regional Response to Zika
The relationship between the United States and its closest neighbors is focused on economic and security matters. Concerns regarding health care rise to the top of the agenda only in times of crisis, and in those crises there are dangers as well as opportunities. So it is with the rapid proliferation of the Zika virus throughout the hemisphere. In helping to lead a region-wide response, U.S. policymakers can improve the capacity of our neighbors to respond to this and future outbreaks, and in so doing better protect the American public and improve U.S. relations with Latin America.
Recently classified as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, the spread of the Zika virus has raised immediate concerns about the capacity of Latin American countries to respond to such a health care emergency. It has also cast a pall over tourism to the region—especially with the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics approaching. While mosquito-borne illness is not a novel threat in the region, the rise and spread of a new illness demonstrates that increased interconnectedness in the hemisphere comes with both benefits and negative consequences.
Moving forward, policy makers and health care experts need a better understanding of the virus in order to develop vaccines. They also need to make long-term treatments available to those affected. As more is being discovered about Zika and its health effects, major concerns have been raised by the virus’s link to microcephaly, which can cause brain damage in infants. Links have also been shown to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause nervous system failure, including paralysis. For the nations affected by Zika, there is thus a need both for preventative measures, and for the development of civil institutions capable of addressing the long-term effects of the virus.
In many countries, the poorest populations—often in indigenous areas— have endured the brunt of this outbreak. These groups have traditionally not benefitted from economic development and investment in more affluent areas, and they are especially vulnerable now because of the scarcity of adequate health care in the areas where they live. Populist policies embraced by too many governments have proven tempting in the short term, but they have not addressed the long term divide in economic opportunity that must be closed to reduce the vulnerability of these populations.
For growing Latin American middle classes, the struggles of their governments in responding to this health care crisis also demonstrates the need for improvements in “human” infrastructure—health care, education, and social care—alongside improvements to physical infrastructure. Too often in the region these vital social services have been coopted by cronyism, populism, and corruption. The Zika outbreak is thus a wake-up call, demonstrating the need for comprehensive health care systems that cover mosquito eradication, assistance to the ill, long-term care for those affected, and the development of infrastructure to address potential future health crises.
A virus has the ability to transcend social, political, and economic divisions. Its ability to cross borders demonstrates the need for cooperation between all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Existing institutions such as the Pan American Health Organization are at the forefront of such an effort, but models applied to other crises—such as the Plan Colombia model for counternarcotics and stabilitization operations—provide a blueprint for working with partner nations to provide both economic support and shared expertise.
Lessons from beyond the Americas are also applicable. President Obama should look to the legacy of President George W. Bush and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—more commonly known as PEPFAR. Just as this marked a revolutionary commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa by the United States, a similar program targeting mosquito-borne disease in the Americas could provide the long-term approach to address not only the current Zika outbreak, but also Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue, Chikungunya, and other diseases that plague the region.
The Zika virus struck at a time when many nations in Latin America were looking towards new opportunities for economic growth and increased political stability. Cooperation will be key to mitigating the impact of this outbreak, and the effort to coordinate such a response can lay a foundation that will make all of the nations involved stronger, not weaker.
Senator Mel Martinez is a retired U.S. Senator from the State of Florida. Ambassador Francis Rooney is CEO of Rooney Holdings, Inc. and a member of the Board of Advisors to the Panama Canal Authority. Both are Trustees of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Washington, D.C.