There’s a West African tale called Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears in which said insect triggers a series of increasingly disruptive responses. She first tells the Iguana a big lie about having seen a farmer digging yams almost as big as she is, which causes the reptile to plug two sticks in his ear so as to be deaf to such bragging nonsense, so that when he passes by the python, who so worries why the iguana will not speak to him, the snake hides in the rabbit’s hole, which so scares the rabbit that she bounds out of the hole and alarms the crow who spreads his kaa kaa kaaing alarm throughout the jungle which is heard by the monkey, who begins screeching and leaping through the trees to help warn other animals, but who lands on a dead limb and kills an owlet, which so grieves Mother Owl that she does not wake the sun and day does not come.
When King Lion calls all the animals together to find out what caused the sky to stay dark, the chain of events becomes clear and Mosquito is found to be the one who should be punished. With this pronouncement, the mother owl is satisfied and wakes up the sun once more. But since Mosquito hides beneath a curly stem and does not accept her punishment, forever more she has a guilty conscience — and goes about whining in people’s ears: “Zee! Is everyone still angry at me?”
And she gets an honest answer. Kapo! She is smashed.
The Caldecott-award winning retelling of this tale by Verna Aardema first came out when my now middle-aged children were small, and we were living in a climate which was either too foggy and cold or many years too arid to be attractive to this buzzing culprit.
San Francisco had its share of biting, blood-drawing, angry-red-bump-producing sand fleas, and these, coupled with the domestic fleas we never could seem to fully control on the bellies of our house cats, caused me particular misery, especially when I was pregnant or nursing. But mosquitoes, at least for that time, were a non-issue.
So without questioning the annoying, but not inherently dangerous, portrayal of Mosquito, I took the story for what it has come to be: a moral tale, still used with young children to talk about truth and consequences, and the notion of original cause. While in Western European culture there are stories about wolves and foxes and pigs and swans, and in Native American, coyotes and road runners, from Africa we get royal lions and fact-bending mosquitoes as the archetypes used for lessons needed and wisdom passed along.
I had spent the first half of my childhood, however, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, inexplicably built in a Southern swamp, and early summer evenings were relentlessly buggy. I remember July dusks, firmly shooed outdoors, armed with empty jelly jars to capture the Japanese beetles that had invaded, chasing fireflies, and swatting mosquitoes. A losing battle with not such a benign creature, which resulted in varying sizes of bumps and blisters, treated with copious amounts of pink calamine lotion — and little relief.
While I tried to dodge the attacks, which continued long into the night, what with screenless open windows and no air conditioning, my father — a mild-mannered scientist — would let the mosquitoes feed off his arm, a very macho thing to do, as one of my brothers recalls.
But, you see, my dad was a mosquito warrior.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had first majored in entomology, the study of insects. He must have learned there that mosquitoes, unlike the cocky but conquerable mosquito in that African folktale, are considered to be one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet because of their ability to spread deadly diseases. In fact, a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, called the A. Gambiae mosquito the world’s most dangerous animal. This dark speck, the female of the species, passes on the malaria parasite with her bite. A disease that has killed millions in wet, warm places around the world.
She and dozens of others of these most unpleasant, most harmful species were my father’s sworn enemies. For life.
As a doctoral student, my dad switched to microbiology, specializing in virus research, which made him a desirable candidate for Public Health Service disease control duty in the Pacific during World War II, where men were being felled by deadly fevers as well as actual warfare. He was attached to the Marines. His primary responsibility was to combat Malaria on those hot, sticky tropical islands where so much of the action and bloodshed took place. He liked to tell the story of how this young researcher, fresh out of graduate school in New England, was considered a “miracle worker” because the area to which he was assigned had no malaria at all. He was considered to have done an amazing job. He kept to himself, however, that there was never any malaria to begin with there, as the species of mosquito that carried this particular disease was not present. A lucky coincidence.
His luck did not hold out for the whole war. He was also supposed to control Dengue Fever, another mosquito borne scourge. While conducting his surveillance, he was bitten by an infected mosquito, and was the first American serviceman to contract the disease, one of the many he was exposed to in the course of his career.
My dad’s professional relationship to mosquitoes and the illnesses they carry in their blood-feeding bites did not end with his time as a commissioned officer. His next public health assignment took him right after the war to a stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority, once again to fight malaria, a very significant disease in the South until around 1950 when the widespread use of DDT largely wiped the carriers out. Bringing with this aerial spraying of toxic chemicals its own consequences of malignancy and defects to birds and other animals and humans alike.
It was during his time in the Deep South that he regularly heard appalling, humanity-denying racial slurs against the very people who were and are always most impacted — low income, outdoor agricultural and other workers —people of color, mostly black, who were less protected: who were forced economically to work outside at the most likely times to be bitten, whose housing was flimsy and vulnerable to insect invasion.
Who did not have the mobility or means to escape during the summer months to places further inland, further North. Like the history many of you might be familiar with of wealthy or at least more well-to-do families in places like Savannah, who traveled to seasonal second residences in Cashiers or Highlands, or Summerville closer to home.
After a couple of years of fruitless and discouraging Deep South swamp duty, my father went on to work on other viruses, mostly in indoor laboratories. Some of them, like polio and tuberculosis, not mosquito-caused. But he remained that macho mosquito warrior: happy that a few decades ago a yellow fever vaccine was finally discovered and marketed (at least if one had access to it), unhappy that malaria and other epidemic diseases were not yet obliterated, not in his lifetime.
So the worldwide malaria death toll is still staggering — 400,000 fatal cases last year. In one West African country, 15,000 people — 14,000 of them children under 5. And the means of prevention, the war on this and other mosquito borne diseases, is only waged, as one health journalist described it “with shovels, insecticides, repellants, traps, mosquito larvae-eating fish, bed nets, window screens, and rolled up newspapers, all temporary weapons.”
Not a final solution and not a cure.
A war with no end of uphill battles and endless rounds of insect abatement education and constant inspection. What should an individual do and what is the responsibility of government policies and agencies wherever and whenever these viruses are found?
In an effort to be more compelling, more effective, the National Centers for Disease Control, headquartered in Atlanta, also home to the filming of the hugely successful The Walking Dead television show, has launched a Zombie Preparedness platform (now that’s a Z word) on its website, aimed at attracting a largely public health indifferent audience with a hipster message on being ready for all kinds of hazards. Promising that if you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.
But what does preparedness really mean? And how does deliberate, systemic injustice operate in the face of these, to deny so many people their basic human rights to survive and even thrive?
As my father’s daughter, I have — metaphorically — mosquito-borne viruses in my blood, and the consciousness of inequities around who has access to prevention and treatment are a part of my legacy from him. With a special sensitivity because of my professional ministry with the UU Women’s Federation and also more acutely our recent UU statement of conscience, to the intersection of race, class, and gender in reproductive rights and beyond this: reproductive justice. A term created by women of color in 1994 to, in their words, “center the experience of the most vulnerable… the inequality of opportunities they have to control their reproductive destiny.”
So I began following the growing stream of reports out of Brazil last year about a disease called Zika — the other Z word — that has frankly preoccupied me — even as this has been one of the most difficult years ever in the work to espouse and defend the right to have children, or not have children, to parent the children one has in healthy environments, without fear they will be harmed or killed, to safeguard bodily autonomy and express sexuality freely.
In the midst of this, there was suddenly this previously obscure disease, originally thought to be transmitted primarily by the bite of an infected Aedes species of, yes, mosquito, first discovered in 1974 in the Zika Forest in Uganda, Africa, which was cropping up in a country South of our borders. Warning us about what might happen if it spread, if it, or something like it, crossed our shores (even though we were told it was unlikely). How prepared would we be — in the face of such a threat — to ensure reproductive choice and the surrounding social justice issues?
We have had our share of virus scares of late: Ebola — which fortunately did not materialize in any numbers in the United States — and West Nile Virus, which has caused considerable concern. We have been told the steps to take to lower the risk of mosquito infestation, from scrupulously emptying standing water, to cutting back grasses and bushes, to purchasing monthly spraying services of more or less toxicity. Wear light colors. Wear long sleeves. Avoid scents. Use repellant.
For high end consumers of mosquito bite prevention products, there are now essential oil perfume-repellants being marketed through luxury hotel chains. For the adventurous and unorthodox, the construction of bat houses in public parks, with the prospect of them devouring up to 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. For the just plain gullible, there are worthless “vapor barrier” mosquito bands being peddled on home shopping channels.
This is not new. What is new with Zika, and it has taken a while to prove, is that this is the first known virus that causes a serious birth defect in a fetus — microcephaly — which may stunt a growing brain. There is increasing evidence of more subtle developmental abnormalities which may not be evident for months or years: eye lesions and infection-related mental conditions, including possibly schizophrenia. The impact of the virus on the fetus and the possibility of miscarriage appears to be more likely and more serious earlier in pregnancy, often before it has been confirmed. And the virus damage may not be detected in utero until much later on.
Never before, the director of the CDC says, had a bite from a mosquito caused such a malformation.
And it is now evident that Zika can be sexually transmitted as well.
We have a virus that for the first time is causing major birth defects in the fetuses of pregnant women who either are infected directly by a bite or through sexual contact with an infected partner. We have no current vaccine. No current cure. Limited access to testing. Women who might be pregnant or trying to become pregnant are told to avoid travel to affected countries. Women who live in some of those 61 countries and territories where the virus has already struck have been advised to delay pregnancies — continued pregnancies in any case — for up to two full years.
For whom is that practical, even possible? How rich or poor might one have to be? How privileged or unprivileged? How oppressed or free?
For some people, these warnings have been an inconvenience with perhaps some economic consequences. While the World Health Organization has ruled that the summer Olympics in Brazil can still go on, a few golfers and possibly other athletes have already bowed out. A Today show co-host who is pregnant will not be covering them for fear of exposure. Some companies are allowing their workers to postpone or cancel business trips. Tourists planning vacations in popular but affected areas have been encouraged to purchase travel insurance and medical evacuation insurance. Some destination weddings have been postponed or moved back home.
As one newspaper reported, for already pregnant wealthy Brazilian women like Regina de Lima, she did what many others of her status and class have done. She got an extended vacation from work, packed her bags and left for Europe, at least through the end of her dicey first trimester. A place that is not infected. A place where the full range of pregnancy choices is available.
Not so for the unemployed and pregnant Tainera Lourenco, whose home in an impoverished rural area is a shack on stilts over a giant pond of fetid water. She lives in the epicenter of that country’s epidemic and in the epicenter of its reproductive injustice. She tells a reporter all she can do is hope that her baby will be alright. There was no test for the virus or ultrasound available to her and no real option to terminate if she had chosen.
Brazilian law professor Debora Diniz wrote an op editorial for the New York Times back in February about Zika and a Woman’s Right to Choose, in which she wrote that she did not know a single case among her friends in their well-to-do neighborhood in Brazilia of pregnant women contracting Zika or having a baby with Zika.
The epidemic, she said, mirrors the social inequality of that society. Concentrated, she noted, among young, poor, black and brown women living in places where mosquitoes are inescapably part of their everyday lives — with little chance of getting help to stop their infestation — and who have the least access to sexual and reproductive health care.
Asking women to delay pregnancy without offering the necessary information, contraceptives, or access to abortion is a reproductive injustice. While contraceptives are legal in Brazil, access to them is difficult for women in poor, rural, and other marginalized communities. In other countries with Zika such as El Salvador, birth control besides abstinence is prohibited. This is a reproductive injustice. There is little or no sexuality education in the schools, which would help teach about protection and pregnancy delay. This is a reproductive injustice.
The onus in preventing pregnancy is on women, while at least 30 percent of Latin American women report intimate partner sexual violence, including rape. This is a reproductive injustice.
In countries like Brazil, abortion is legal only in cases of maternal endangerment, rape, and a handful of other situations — and not for carrying a fetus with neurological birth defects. Any other abortion is subject to imprisonment, while millions of women have them, often unsafely, anyway. Even while the United Nations — looking at the charter of human rights — has declared that, especially at this time, safe, legal, and available abortion is an international mandate. To not do so is a reproductive injustice. If women bear children with serious medical problems, they are most often left to care for them alone for the rest of their lives.
This too is a reproductive injustice.
As world citizens, these reproductive injustices in places outside our borders should call us to outrage and action. Beyond this, the situation for these millions of women in places like Brazil and El Salvador also hold up a mirror for this country as well. As Lyn Neeley from the International Action Center warns us, with no national funding, or coordinated prevention plan — and, in fact, direct barriers to prevention — the Zika virus is set to sweep through our own Southern gulf states. As one health officer observed, like the lead poisoned water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Zika virus – like in other countries where it has struck — will have a disparate impact that is class and race based. Attacking in places with the fewest resources, and like Brazil, with some of the harshest anti-choice laws. States like Florida, with the most confirmed cases of Zika so far. Alabama. Mississippi. Texas.
States that have passed among the most draconian laws regulating abortion clinics, attempting to shut down family planning centers. States where the rates of unintended pregnancy — failure to use effective means of birth control — are staggering. In Texas, it is more than half. In Florida, 60 percent.
In a national climate where the current House majority passed a long overdue Zika-fighting funding bill with an amendment prohibiting use of any money for family planning clinics, most explicitly Planned Parenthood. Leaving Congress at an impasse. A national climate in which the House majority party has proposed once more to eliminate Title X — the national family planning program which provides low cost sexual health programs to more than four million patients and prevents more than a million unwanted pregnancies a year.
The reproductive justice statement of conscience we UUs adopted last year is deeply based in our Unitarian Universalist values of sacred sexuality, inherent worth and dignity, reverence for not only the value of life itself but also in the quality of life, the right of conscience, and justice and compassion in human relations. They call us to support the feminist principles that would fiercely protect individual human agency, trusting that every woman, all women, should be able to make important decisions about our bodies, our families, and our communities without interference from those who would undermine our right to self-determination.
Whatever Zikas — whatever extraordinary or ordinary choices — we may be faced with.
(Delivered first at the Unitarian Church of Savannah Georgia, July 10,2016.)