A home in El Salvador being fumigated to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. Photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images
The mosquito-borne disease shows that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways
Monday 25 January 2016 07.30 EST
I’ve spent much of my life chronicling the ongoing tragedies stemming from global warming: the floods and droughts and storms, the failed harvests and forced migrations. But no single item on the list seems any more horrible than the emerging news from South America about the newly prominent Zika disease.
Spread by mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms, Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms. But pregnant women bitten by the wrong mosquito are liable to give birth to babies with shrunken heads. Brazil last year recorded 4,000 cases of this “microcephaly”. As of today, authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela were urging women to avoid getting pregnant.
Think about that. Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable. Or rather, it is something out of a science fiction story, the absolute core of a dystopian future. “It is recommended that women postpone – to the extent possible – the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” the Colombian health authorities said, adding that those living in low altitude areas should move higher if possible, out of the easy range of mosquitoes.
Now think about the women who are already pregnant, and who will spend the next months in a quiet panic about whether their lives will be turned upside down. Try to imagine what that feels like – the anger, the guilt, the pervasive anxiety at the moment when you most want to be calm and serene.
And now think about the larger, less intimate consequences: this is one more step in the division of the world into relative safe and dangerous zones, an emerging epidemiological apartheid. The CDC has already told those Americans thinking of becoming pregnant to avoid travel to 20 Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Eventually, of course, the disease will reach these shores – at least 10 Americans have come back from overseas with the infection, and one microcephalic baby has already been born in Hawaii to a mother exposed in Brazil early in her pregnancy. But America is rich enough to avoid the worst of the mess its fossil fuel habits have helped create.