Zika Economics: Brazil Calls Emergency Meeting of Latin American Trade Bloc

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Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is calling an emergency meeting of the Latin American trade bloc Mercosur over the rapid spread of the Zika virus. As the virus spreads throughout the hemisphere, a Mercosur meeting indicates Brazil’s concern for the economic repercussions of such an outbreak as much as the medical ones.

Rousseff has also called for members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which includes most Caribbean island nations as well as Colombia, Venezuela, and others on the South and Central American mainland, to participate in the fight against Zika.

“In my [call for a meeting] I proposed that we also have a cooperative action in the fight against the Zika virus,” Rousseff told reporters Wednesday, “We will have a Mercosur meeting Tuesday in Montevideo [Uruguay] open to all CELAC nations, as well as Unasur [the South American Community of Nations].”

Rousseff noted that “the majority of countries are adopting a model similar to ours of using the armed forces as one of the organizational vectors in the fight to eradicate breeding grounds [for mosquitos] and the elimination of collections of water.” The Zika virus is spread through bites from the mosquito Aedes aegypti, found in every nation on the Western Hemisphere save Chile and Canada.

Rousseff deployed 220,000 soldiers to travel to affected areas in a door-to-door campaign, raising awareness about the threats of Zika as well as distributing insect repellant to pregnant women and providing information on how to avoid mosquito bites. On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Pentagon confirmed that it would be involved in American efforts to keep the virus from spreading domestically, alongside the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Zika virus causes muscle aches and fever in those affected, though up to 80 percent of patients will not experience any symptoms. To adults, it poses a minor threat. Since late December 2015, however, Brazilian medical authorities have seen an astronomical spike in cases of microcephaly in infants born to women who had contracted Zika while pregnant. Microcephaly is a condition in which the skull of the infant is too small for its brain, causing severe neurological damage.

That Rousseff has turned to Mercosur, a trade bloc, suggests she and her administration are increasingly concerned regarding the economic ramifications of the outbreak. Mercosur’s founding purpose is to enhance free trade in the region and strengthen national economies. Brazil remains its largest member despite major economic setbacks.

As CNN notes, without taking Zika into consideration, Brazil’s economic is contracting significantly, expected to shrink 3.5 percent in 2016. The outlet describes the situation as the worst since the 1930s. Many expected a major influx in tourism in August, when Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Summer Olympics, to revitalize the economy; the threat of significant harm from the virus may deter thousands from attending.

Brazilian authorities have begun large-scale fumigation efforts at Olympic venues, hoping to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito before August. Authorities deployed more than 3,000 workers to clean out the Sambadrome, the central Olympic venue, and are expected to make daily cleaning rounds. August is also a winter month in Brazil, when the nation experiences less rain and becomes less fertile ground for insects.

Whether these efforts will succeed remains unknown. Airlines have already begun offering refunds to travelers who no longer wish to risk their health in Latin America. British Airways is offering refunds for pregnant women in particular with tickets to Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, and two cities in Mexico. American Airlines is offering a similar service requiring a doctor’s note, and applicable for El Salvador, Honduras, Panama City, and Guatemala City. Other airlines are making similar offers, as well.

Another major economic factor in play is the risk that Latin American populations will dwindle faster than anticipated. The governments of Brazil, El Salvador, and Colombia have warned women to avoid pregnancies until the virus is contained if at all possible. “Cautioning entire cohorts of women to put off childbearing for years could impact the demographic trajectories of countries, adversely affecting their economic prospects,” PBS notes.