Politics of Nature: Mosquitoes, Pathogens, and That Which Divides Brazil

Impeachment protests in Brazil

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN two-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring pieces by both old and new friends. Today, Luísa Reis-Castro writes about the epidemic responses for Zika and COVID-19 in Brazil, and how these are enmeshed in both national politics and interpersonal relations.

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, edited by Emily Webster, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

December 2015. I was flying from the U.S. to Brazil for the holidays. Once I landed, I was greeted by a large poster alerting travelers about the increased risk of bites from Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. A new virus was now circulating in the country: Zika.

Just a week before this trip, during an end-of-the-semester party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had told my friends, colleagues, and professors about a strange disease emerging in Brazil. I mentioned that women were being advised not to get pregnant, although abortion was (and still is) a punishable crime in the country.[1] Not only had my friends not heard of the pathogen, they also didn’t know that the Brazilian Health Ministry was linking Zika with health issues in fetuses and newborn babies—the virus and its epidemic had not reached their international notoriety yet. So, as I talked to them, I explained that Zika had become a ubiquitous topic in the news and conversations across Brazil, the foremost health concern in the country.  

At that point, there were several uncertainties about the virus (there still are many). However, the A. aegypti, the insect known to transmit the viruses causing dengue and chikungunya, had already been identified as the vector. Thus, fear of its bites had amplified.[2] Amidst the alarm, the search for insect repellent skyrocketed. It disappeared from shelves and, when it was available, prices were often ridiculously high. So, I told my friends that the suitcase I was taking to Brazil was packed with an array of different types of repellents: DEET, Picaridin, and plant-based. I had received requests to bring it for friends, relatives, relatives of friends, and friends of relatives. People who I loved but also who I didn’t even know, and people who I knew had very different opinions about the country’s health politics. It did not matter. We all agreed that Zika was a concern to be taken seriously.

A few weeks after I arrived in Brazil, the national government launched a campaign to address Zika and the other arboviruses transmitted by the A. aegypti. Their slogan was “Um mosquito não é mais forte que um país inteiro,” or “A mosquito is not stronger than an entire country.”

Anti-Zika campaign.
Image from the anti-Zika campaign (#ZIKAZERO), see Brazilian Ministry of Health.
[Image description: On the top, it is written “Um mosquito não é mais forte que um país inteiro.”
Underneath, an image with a “scared” mosquito behind a prohibition sign and the words #ZIKAZERO. Underneath that, “Atenção! Tudo que acumule água é foco do moquito.” On the bottom, the number 136 (the Ministry of Health helpline) and the logos for SUS, Ministério da Saúde, and the Federal Government.]

This country supposed to rally against the mosquito was, however, a shattered one. Dilma Rousseff was the president at the time, and she and her party, the Workers’ Party, had been enduring strong opposition coming from the streets, from the media, from the judiciary, and from many of her fellow elected representatives.

Scholars, pundits, and some of my interlocutors (such as government employees from the Ministry of Health) have pointed out that the Rousseff government attempted to use the Zika epidemic response as a way to unify the country, to bring together a polarized nation under a common enemy. But it did not work—and a lot has changed since then.

A group of people
President Dilma Rousseff wearing the shirt for the #ZikaZero campaign in Rio de Janeiro, with the slogan “A mosquito is not stronger than an entire country (February 13, 2016). Image by Fernando Frazão, Agência Brasil.
[Image description: A group of people on a street, who seem to be celebrating. Rousseff is in the middle, on her side there is an uniformed man.]

First, Rouseff is no longer Brazil’s president. She was impeached in 2016, after a controversial and contested process that many defined to have been a golpe.[3] The successor was her vice-president, Michel Temer, who had another party affiliation. He heralded a pro-business agenda and austerity measures. Although the impeachment marked a sharp shift in public policies, Temer also tried to use the epidemic response in a once again failed effort to unify the country as well as legitimize his (extremely unpopular) government.

Zika situation room
Michel Temer (already acting as president) on the “Zika Situation Room” discussing a campaign against the mosquito in Brasilia (December 2, 2016). Image by Marcos Corrêa, Agência Brasil.
[Image description: Conference room with Temer seating in the middle. Behind him, there is a display of the anti-mosquito campaign ((#MOSQUITONÃO) and next to it a banner with the face a woman with the sentence “Um simples mosquito pode marcar uma vida.”]

As the historian Gabriel Lopes and I have noted in a book chapter on the topic, the Zika epidemic and, in particular, the health issues the virus can cause were implicated in the political polarization which had intensified during the impeachment’s orchestration.[4] On the “left” side, feminists insisted on the need to decriminalize/legalize abortion as a social justice issue since poor, mostly black and brown, women were unequally harmed by both the procedure’s illegality and the impacts of Zika. On the “right,” religious (mostly evangelical) leaders and other conservatives called for even more restrictive access to abortion since it could be used as an “eugenic tool” against disabled children, like those with Congenital Zika Virus Syndrome.[5]

The country’s polarization and strengthening of conservative forces were further galvanized in 2018, with the election of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. Similar to what has happened in WhatsApp family groups across the country, I saw myself having heated debates with relatives who were ardent supporters of Bolsonaro’s agenda. And now, I am no longer on speaking terms with several of the people for whom I smuggled insect repellent across borders.

As the political scientist and Congresswoman Áurea Carolina has pointed out, Bolsonaro is not an anomaly that suddenly swept and corrupted our neighbors and family members. Much like Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro is a symptom. His presidency is the reification of a country built through indigenous dispossession and exploitation of enslaved people and their descendants, a country marked by the brutal oppression of LGBTQI+ people and women, especially Indigenous and Black women.

Bolsonaro exposes Brazil’s true colors, forcing Brazilians—especially white Brazilians who might have been able to ignore the country’s brutal past and present—to reckon with the country’s violent history and still-violent existence.

And while a lot might have changed in the political sphere, Brazil continues to struggle with mosquito-borne diseases. In June, scientists identified a new strain of the Zika virus, which could cause a new epidemic. The cases of dengue and chikungunya this year are high, although they are overshadowed by another, even more worrisome pathogen—the new coronavirus—and Brazil’s negligent and deadly response (or lack of it) to its pandemic.

Bolsonaro with mask.
Bolsonaro holds a box of hydroxychloroquine, which he has defined as a “miraculous cure” to COVID-19 (July 20, 2020). Image from Facebook.
[Image description: on the left, in the foreground, a man wears a white mask and holds a box up in the air. In the background, a cheering crowd in which several people are wearing yellow shirts.]

There is now not even a (performative) effort to unify the country. Bolsonaro has responded to the coronavirus with bluntly false, anti-scientific solutions. Since the beginning, the president has dismissed the epidemic; his supporters (including some of my relatives) even question the staggering tragic number of more than 120,000 deaths in the country. As it is always the case in Brazil, Indigenous people, women, and especially people living in poverty (most of them Black) are bearing the bulk of the epidemic’s burden. A recent study in the city of São Paulo has shown that 22% of residents from lower-income neighborhoods, and 18% from middle-income ones have antibodies. However, in parts of the city with higher income, this number lowers to 9%.

In other words, in a country with such a divisive president, there are also two very different kinds of COVID-19 epidemics happening. One, dangerous and deadly, has been striking those that have always been dismissed and disregarded throughout Brazil’s history. Another has been hovering around those who can afford to protect themselves and to pay for better healthcare, and who are waiting (hoping?) for a “herd immunity” that would be reached through the thousands of deaths in the country. The country is not united. It has never been anything other than divided…

The issue was never the mosquito, after all.

[1] It is, however, legal in cases of rape, risk to the mother’s life, and anencephalic fetuses.

[2] Together with anthropologist of health Carolina Nogueira, I have examined how in Brazil there was an almost exclusive focus on the vectoral and vertical transmission routes, even though the pathogen can also be transmitted through fluids. Zika was then framed as a virus transmitted only by mosquitoes and the epidemic as a concern only for women. This negligence to attend to transmission through fluids, especially the sexual transmission of Zika, left many women at risk of infection. “Who Should Be Concerned? Zika as an Epidemic About Mosquitoes and Women (And Some Reflections On COVID-19),” Somatosphere (April 6, 2020). Also forthcoming, “Uma Antropologia da Transmissão: mosquitos, mulheres e a epidemia de Zika no Brasil,” Ilha: Revista de Antropologia.

[3] Golpe is the Portuguese world for coup d’état. Political commentators and scholars have argued the impeachment process was a “parliamentary coup” with judicial and media support. Even Temer, who took over Roussef, has called the process a golpe at an interview once. Besides coup d’état, the word golpe can also mean a con or a blow: the very controversial legality and legitimacy of the process can already be seen as a heavy hit to the stability of the democratic institutions and to the trust into the rule of law.

[4] Gabriel Lopes and Luísa Reis-Castro, “A Vector in the (Re)Making: A History of Aedes Aegypti as Mosquitoes That Transmit Diseases in Brazil,” in Framing Animals as Epidemic Villains, ed. Christos Lynteris (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 147-175.

[5] Anahí Guedes de Mello and Gabriela Rondon (2020), however, have shown how the right to abortion, as part of the struggle to secure concrete conditions for an autonomous life, is a common ground between demands from feminist and disability rights movements. “Feminism, Disability, and Reproductive Autonomy: Abortion in Times of Zika in Brazil.” Somatosphere (February 17, 2020).

*Cover image: Protests for and against during Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment vote at the Esplanada, Brasília (April 17, 2016). Image by Juca Varella, Agência Brasil.

[Cover image description: Aerial photo of a central avenue with protestors marked by red shirts and banners on the left side, and protestors for impeachment marked by green and yellow shirts and banners.]