The Zika Virus and Militarizing Medicine

As you may have read, Brazil is currently dealing with a baffling medical situation that is threatening to become an epidemic, as the Zika virus (spread by mosquitos that also can carry dengue and other diseases) is affecting the country. One unexpected outcome has been that the number of cases of microcephaly among babies has skyrocketed. Though the connection is unclear, it appears that, while the virus by itself is basically the effect of having the flu, pregnant women who contract it are giving birth to babies with microcephaly. Meanwhile, the virus has spread through most of northern South America, through much of Central America, and even into Mexico, and is likely to continue spreading throughout the Americas. In addition to spurring greater interest in the virus and an effort to treat it, it has also led to more unusual routes, including El Salvador cautioning women to simply not get pregnant for the next two years – quite a stunning move, considering the implications of birth control in a country that is still highly Catholic in cultural practices if not automatically in religious observance.

Of course, the current “epidemic” has begun in Brazil, and it’s taken its own unusual tactic by calling in the military:

Brazil’s government says it will deploy 220,000 soldiers in its fight against mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus.

The soldiers will go from home to home handing out leaflets on how to avoid the spread of Zika, which has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains.

The announcement came after Health Minister Marcelo Castro said Brazil was “losing badly” in its fight against the virus.

There are a few things of interest here. First, it is interesting that the Health Minister has posed this as a military struggle that anthropomorphizes insects and pathogens to the point that one “side” can “lose badly” to the other “side” of mosquitoes/the virus in a “battle.”

Also, the use of the military here offers a useful insight into how other countries with large militaries who aren’t often deployed overseas (or at least not at the rate as militaries in countries like the US and Russia) still use their armed forces. Imagine if there was a health crisis in the US, and Obama had the National Guard deploy internally on a public information campaign. His opponents would likely lose their minds, and he would likely take a fierce hit in public opinion.

Yet in Brazil, the military provides a capable and prepared workforce that can mobilize quickly to inform as much of the population as possible in a short time span. While the Brazilian military obviously has a troubled past in Brazil, it is equally obvious that the armed forces are not always an overt threat to society, either. Even as the government militarizes its language around the Zika outbreak the country is facing, its decision to use the armed forces peaceably to try to spread the disease is an interesting example of how military forces can be used in (non-traditional military) roles in societies beyond the traditional deployment of troops overseas, even as the government itself has militarized the language about dealing with the Zika outbreak.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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