The news on the Zika virus gets more alarming by the minute: two months ago, researchers in Brazil connected the mosquito-born fever to a spate of microcephaly among newborns. Three weeks ago, public health officials in Central America told all women to postpone pregnancy for two years. Then the WHO declared the disease a global emergency. And just days ago, CDC officials in Dallas confirmed the first human-to-human sexual transmission of the virus in the United States.
Zika provokes a profound moral crisis, not just a public health emergency, because it targets that most sacrosanct part of human society: motherhood. This is why conspiracy theorists hypothesize it’s a bio weapon. At the very least, “solution aversion”—a situation where the imagined solution to a problem is so distasteful that people then decide to deny the very existence of the problem, something more commonly associated with climate change skepticism—seems to be at play.
The disease (and the health response) flies in the face of culturally accepted values in the U.S. and Latin America that are closely tied to faith. In highly Catholic South America, where abortion and other forms of birth control are restricted, the scientific advice conflicts with religious convictions. Notice, too, the gender imbalance: only women are being told to prevent pregnancy… What of the social responsibility of men?
Here in the U.S., warming temperatures have expanded the range of Aedes mosquitos, an area of the Bible Belt that maps onto the strongest climate change skepticism in the country. Thus the virus, incubated in a political climate of the refugee crisis and xenophobia as well as climate denialism, threatens a larger fallout than just those individuals directly impacted by the illness.
Perhaps the virus is a tipping point that will effect a shift in public opinion on global warming. Perhaps the friction caused by the preventative solution proposed–avoiding pregnancy–will delay an effective public response. The difference lies in whether public health officials and other leaders in civil society (especially moral-religious figures) find a way to re-narrate Zika without guilt-inducing panic that sets up public resistance.