By Brian Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981)
Author, International Affairs/Development/Public Policy Professional, Freelance Writer/Journalist/Consultant/Historian
Among all the problems the Republican Party is causing today, there is a new blunder that truly stands in its own category…
The Zika virus.
Yes, we truly can blame the Republican Party for the fact that there is a growing Zika threat in America, at least for the degree to which it will be a threat. It was entirely possibly to plan ahead and mitigate whatever damage Zika would have done, but the Republican Party failed on this front, and it is important to understand why because this illustrates the modern Republican Party’s philosophy on government and illustrates it well. In fact, Republicans’ handling of Zika is a sad yet clear reminder of how unfit to govern the GOP was even before that asteroid that is Donald Trump hit it, and that it was not a serious political party when it came to policy for some time before The Donald’s rise.
To truly understand the magnitude of the error here, we must start at the beginning.
From Uganda to Florida: The Strange, Surprising Odyssey of Zika
The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in the Zika forest of Uganda, a disease related to West Nile virus, dengue, and yellow fever. The first case in humans was not detected until 1952, but it was not linked to illness in people until 1964, when a scientist studying the virus came down with a rash. From its discovery until 2007, no outbreaks of Zika were detected by public health officials, only 14 confirmed cases in humans were detected, and the virus was thought to only to be “rare” and exhibit “mild symptoms,” even as mosquitos carrying Zika were found in new parts of Africa and also Asia. However, the WHO considers the possibility that Zika’s similarities to dengue and chikungunya may have contributed to its lack of diagnosis.
In 2007, though, Zika burst is way into medical headlines with an outbreak on the island of Yap, part of the Caroline Islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. The small island nation—whose population was less than 7,400 as of its 2000 census—ended up with 185 suspected cases of Zika virus (49 confirmed, 59 probable), a figure arrived at from just completing surveys of 173 out of the island’s 1,276 households; from this information, researchers were able to estimate that 73% of the entire Island’s population 3 years of age or older were infected with Zika, with 919 of those falling ill, or 18% of the infected; none of those who became ill experienced serious symptoms or conditions. Most common among the reported symptoms were rashes and fevers, followed by joint pain/inflammation and conjunctivitis. Researchers were unable to determine a clear path as to how Zika emerged in this remote Pacific island.
The following year, a researcher in Senegal contracted the virus there, came back to the U.S., and sexually transmitted the virus to his wife; it could be the first example of a generally insect-transmitted disease being passed on through sexual intercourse (something which we now know is a feature of Zika).
Zika roared back into the headlines again in 2013 with a series outbreaks in the Pacific in 2013-2014. The most serious outbreak occurred in French Polynesia, where as many as two-thirds of its 270,000 residents were estimated to have been infected (with 8,750 specific cases suspected, 341 actually confirmed). Over 31,000 people sought treatment, and this outbreak came with a series of far more severe symptoms and conditions than previous outbreaks, including immune system problems. Especially alarming were 8 confirmed cases of microcephaly: pregnant women developing fetuses with abnormally small heads, leading to a whole range of possible issues with mental development (5 of the fetuses were aborted, 3 were birthed), and researchers estimated that 1% of women infected with Zika who were pregnant and in their first trimester would be at risk of developing fetuses with microcephaly; this may seem low, but it is actually relatively high (all this information came from a retroactive study that only came out in mid-March 2016, a response to the WHO’s calling the suspected links between Zika and neurological disorders a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on February 1st, 2016; now, it also seems Zika can lead to other problems for babies’ brains, including hearing loss).
The Zika virus in French Polynesia also seemed to lead to dramatically higher incidents of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system and can lead to paralysis and even death, a conclusion supported by a study released late February in 2016, also in response to the WHO.
The origin of the French Polynesia outbreak remains unknown, but it seems to have been the one to spread Zika to other places in the Pacific, including Chile’s Easter Island, and Zika probably even spread to other Pacific locales without their populations’ or medical experts’ awareness.
Thus, a disease that had been known for well over half-a-century in parts of Africa and Asia that had never been associated with any serious illness all of a sudden capable of leading to paralysis, severe birth defects, even death.
Fast forward to early March, 2015, when Brazil informs the WHO that a strange new disease is spreading; from February through April, about 7,000 people report infection, but most of them only experience mild symptoms, mainly a rash. From 425 blood samples, tests are conducted to determine what the infection is, with a number of diseases not being confirmed present in any of the tests and only dengue coming up, present in just 13% of the samples.
Going back, only a few weeks after Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, much smaller numbers of patients had been coming in with rashes, fevers, joint pain, and other mild symptoms.
The disease kept spreading throughout the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016, but kept eluding diagnosis.
Then in May, Brazil was finally able to confirm that the mystery illness was caused by the Zika virus, transmitted by local mosquitos. In response, the WHO declared a Zika alert. But local Brazilian officials seemed relieved it was Zika; the available studies on it at the time suggested that it was only a mild disease, not as bad as other regularly occurring diseases in Brazil, with studies confirming links to more serious complications during the French Polynesia outbreak not coming out until later, in 2016. It seems that the virus was brought to Brazil in a way where it became established locally by either the 2014 World Cup or an international boat race that occurred a few weeks later.
But the virus can also spread easily from travelers spreading the disease on their own, without mosquitos; New York City’s first case predated Brazil’s outbreak and was detected in December 2013 in a man who had just traveled extensively in Latin-America and the Asia-Pacific region.
The relief in Brazil at the diagnosis of Zika quickly disappeared just weeks later when cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome shot up sharply, the sense of dread only worsening when microcephaly also later began showing up in abnormally large numbers. And not only has Zika spread all over Central and South America and the Caribbean, but locally-transmitted Zika cases have just begun happening in the continental United States, in the Miami, Florida area. It is expected to spread locally (i.e., through local mosquito populations) elsewhere in the U.S., especially the mosquito-rich American southeast and Gulf Coast; Texas, for example, has already had 108 travel-related cases but not locally-transmitted ones so far, but the state’s response to a potential outbreak has been lacking; in some cases, prescriptions from doctors are even required for the appropriate mosquito repellent.
But what makes this situation far worse is that most people won’t be showing any symptoms even after they have been infected with the virus (but can still transmit the disease through sexual contact!), meaning many travelers, including those returning from the just-concluded Rio Olympics, will be carrying the disease with them around the world without knowing it, including in the U.S. Furthermore, as in Brazil, it will be many months before babies will be born with or fetuses clearly exhibit microcephaly.
There have been confirmed cases of travel-related Zika in every U.S. state, though so far, only Florida has developed locally transmitted (mosquito) cases. But for Zika to be established locally, it wouldn’t take much: there are two types of mosquitos known to be able to transmit Zika in the U.S., and they live in most of the East Coast, most of the Midwest, the Southeast, and much of the Southwest; global warming has helped expandt the reach of these mosquitos, and they would just need to bite someone infected with Zika from abroad to spread it to other people. Additionally, a very small percentage of the time (a bit more than one-third of 1%) one of the two mosquito species’ mothers pass Zika to their eggs (which are “impervious” to pesticide) and therefore pass it on to new generations of mosquitos, making containment even more difficult.
Zika & Congressional Republicans in 2016: A Timeline & Microcosm of GOP’s Reckless Irresponsibility & Inability to Govern
Yet the U.S. should hardly be caught flat-footed at this moment in time, even if that seems to be exactly what is happening: back in January of this year, about half a year before the first local/mosquito U.S. transmissions in Florida at the end of July, both the WHO (January 25th) and CDC warned (January 28th) that Zika, already “explosively” spreading in South America, was “likely” to spread to the U.S., and they were hardly alone in sounding the alarm that the U.S. was at risk. And on February 1st, the WHO labeled Zika’s suspected links with neurological disorders a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
Thankfully, after a February 5th request from Senate Democrats that President Obama forcefully addressed the threat of Zika, Obama acted swiftly, barely more than a week after the CDC warning, requesting nearly $2 billion in funds to help prevent and fight off a U.S. Zika outbreak (February 8th). The funding would have included boosts to mosquito control programs, vaccine research, and educational efforts.
But not even two weeks later, leading Republicans in the House of Representatives rejected the president’s request (February 18th). Enter politics: those leading House Republicans felt that existing money set aside for the State Department and for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to deal with an earlier Ebola scare should have been allocated to deal with Zika, and rejected the call for new funding. The White House maintained that it would not support sabotaging efforts to keep Americans and others safe from Ebola, one of the world’s worst infectious diseases. Even a compromise measure that would have seen about $1 billion in emergency Zika funding approved fell by the wayside because of the politics of Republican objections to the Iran nuclear deal and Republican infighting. Many (and important) Republicans in the Senate followed their House colleagues in questioning and resisting Obama’s request.
Eventually, in the face of Republican intransigence, the White House reluctantly felt compelled to use $589 million already set aside for other emergency preparedness programs (April 6th): $510 million from ongoing Ebola programs (including those run by USAID in Africa) and $79 million from other programs, including ones that strategically stockpiles vaccines and other supplies in case of serious outbreaks, a move that has various local jurisdictions worried about their abilities to meet other threats now. The gutting of the Ebola programs could see their funding run out in October, which is when the funding Obama redirected to deal with Zika could also run out.
Republicans seemed awfully ready to dismiss such concerns of national and international public health, though the White House stressed that new funding was still then necessary. In contrast, many Republicans at first wanted to avoid appropriating any new emergency funds and wanted the White House to appropriate (and later, keep appropriating) money from other emergency funds until a new discussion about new non-emergency standard funding can come about when decisions are made about how to fund the government for FY2017, which should begin being funded around October 1st, provided there is not a repeat of brinksmanship about a shutdown.
In essence, the Republicans were procedurally trying to treat Zika as if it were anything but an emergency in order to save money, oppose president Obama, and score political points on various fronts: some wanted to demand cuts in other areas in return, others did not want to see any spending bill passed whatsoever in a heated election year; things are particularly difficult in the House, where every Republican and Democrat is up for reelection this fall, and in which getting agreement just among GOP members is notoriously difficult (just ask former Speaker John Boehner or current Speaker Paul Ryan).
Even as Republicans in Congress delayed and obstructed, the WHO announced “a strong scientific consensus” that Zika was the cause of the more severe conditions it had been suspected of causing (March 31st), and CDC officials confirmed the suspicion that Zika was definitely a cause of birth defects, namely severe microcephaly (April 13th): “Never before in history has there been a situation where a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation,” noted the CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden.
In the second half of May, House Republicans finally passed a $622 million Zika bill( (May 18th), far less than Obama had asked far (about one-third, to be more precise). It was a bill that was only intended to provide funding for not even half a year and that took even more funding—over $352 million—away from Ebola programs and also took $270 million from HHS administrative funds. For the Director of the CDC (who quipped: “It’s just not enough”) and other experts, such funding falls far short of what is necessary, limits and impairs effective responses, and is risky in that is jeopardizes preparedness for other emergencies.
The White House threatened to veto the legislation; however, relative to the position of some Republicans that the funding for Zika could wait until the next fiscal year, this move, sadly, marked a sort of “progress.” But Obama said he would veto the measure as grossly insufficient, a view shared even by Obama opponent and Sen. (and former presidential candidate) Marco Rubio, Florida’s lone Republican in the Senate (it probably helps that Florida is particularly vulnerable to Zika).
The Senate itself passed (May 19th) a measure that allocated $1.1 billion in new funding for Zika, nearly twice as much what the House approved; though it received much support from Senate Democrats, it was part of a huge spending bill, one that also faces a White House veto, but for reasons unrelated to Zika: included were provisions limiting the power of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and barring the president from closing the Guantánamo Bay military prison facility or from authorizing new facilities to house the prisoners now held there anywhere back in the U.S.Such is the way standard and ongoing political fights between the White House and Republicans come to affect pressing action on emergencies like the Zika virus.
Such is the way standard and ongoing political fights between the White House and Republicans come to affect pressing action on emergencies like the Zika virus.
Efforts to reconcile the House and Senate legislation ran into further political speed bumps in the weeks after their passings: Republicans in the House thought removing environmental protections against some pesticides was an appropriate measure to pass (May 24th), which earned a response from the White House which excoriated the move: “Rebranding legislation that removes important Clean Water Act protections for public health and water quality is not an appropriate avenue for addressing the serious threat to the nation that the Zika virus poses,” noting that exceptions already exist for emergencies like this one and that this is part of a larger, preexisting GOP agenda to loosen environmental restrictions on pesticides. Republicans are also fighting against any additional abortion or contraceptive methods being used in response to sexually-transmissible Zika, with some preferring abstinence-only educational approaches: the Zika bill passed by the House did not even provide money for facilities that might use contraceptive methods to help fight the sexual spread of Zika.
Things would only get worse: during the reconciliation process to merge the House and Senate bills into something final, amid the height of partisan rancor over gun control after this summer’s Orlando terrorist mass shooting at a gay nightclub and during a Democratic sit-in on that very issue of gun-control, Republicans saw to it that a provision was removed (June 23rd, around 3AM) that would have banned and prevented federal funding for official large flyings of “Confederate” rebel flags in federal cemeteries, itself a product of a contentious fight over the rebel Civil War flag that took place after the terrorist shooting of African-Americans in Charleston last summer. Additionally, the final bill: cut $540 million in funding for Obamacare/ACA, did not provide any funding for contraceptive prevention providers (including, of course, any funds for Planned Parenthood) for this STD, and took an additional $107 million away from Ebola programs and another $100 million from administrative funding for HHS, with $750 million in total cuts/reallocations offsetting the $1.1 billion in Zika funding, funding which would sustain efforts to fight the disease through September 2017. Unsurprisingly, Senate Democrats blocked the bill in a procedural vote on June 28th, having felt that by agreeing to an amount that was $800 million less than what the Obama Administration wanted was enough of a compromise, and that the cheap political ploys, especially blocking the funding of preventive contraceptive measures for the rapidly spreading STD that is Zika—a move that especially leaves poor women vulnerable—went too far.
So, too, did the White House, which said it would veto the legislation over the controversial provisions.
In fact, Obama noted (July 1st) that had funding already been approved, it is likely that a functional Zika vaccine would already be close to on its way; the president noted the delay in funding and the efforts to score cheap, often unrelated, political points in trying to deal with this emergency have prevented this from being the case and this unacceptable situation poses a serious—and seriously avoidable and unnecessary—national health risk: “It’s been politics as usual rather than responding to a very serious health request,” he said.
Even as new Congressional testimony by experts offered dire warnings on Zika (July 13th), the very next day (July 14th), Congress adjourned for its nearly two-month summer recess after failing again to bridge the divide: Republicans still decided it was better to use the vital, pressing funding for fighting Zika as a poker chip in a card game involving Obamacare, government spending, birth control, pesticides, even the “Confederate” flag rather than treat it as its own issue and its own end; after Republicans rejected an attempt by the Democrats to go back to the bipartisan $1.1 billion clean bill they had passed May 19th without the controversial political gimmicks—with GOP Senate leaders saying they had to accept the House bill as is because of procedure (a procedure the Senate Republican leadership had pursued without including Democrats in the process)—Democrats again blocked the new $1.1 billion measure with the controversial, sometimes counterproductive measures. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who would be announced as Hillary Clinton’s VP pick over a week later, was at the hearing the day before and expressed what many are feeling: “This is why people hate Congress…This is why people hate Washington.” At the same hearing, CDC Director Frieden somberly added that “This is no way to fight epidemics.”
Thus, Congress went on vacation during the peak of the threat of Zika spreading in the U.S. and over five months after Obama first asked for funding to fight Zika without providing funding to fight Zika. The fight over Zika will resume again once Congress is back in session, in the fall, nearly seven months after the president first laid out his request.
And it was only a few weeks after Congress went on recess when news broke on July 29th that Zika had been spread through local/mosquito transmission in Florida, the first/local mosquito transmissions in the continental U.S; the virus continues to spread in the state.
In response to the local transmissions in Florida, congressional Democrats urged Republican congressional leaders to call Congress back to session in order to pass a Zika bill (July 31st). They repeated this call on August 4th. Republican leaders, however, choose not to reconvene Congress.
On August 9th, the first Zika-related death of an infant in the U.S., one born with microcephaly in Texas, is announced.
On August 11th, Sec. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the head of HHS, announced that her department’s money to fight Zika—taken earlier by the Obama Administration from money set aside for the important Ebola and other emergency programs—would run out by the end of August. In order to prevent a stoppage of the work to develop a critically important Zika vaccine, which had just begun clinical trials on people, she announced that she was taking $81 million away from other noteworthy programs: $34 million from programs at the National Institutes of Health for researching treatment of cancer, diabetes, and other diseases; $19 million from a program that provides heating oil for low-income families; $4 million to help substance abuse, among others. On this day also, Democrats again call for Republican leaders in Congress to end the recess to pass a Zika bill. This still has not happened.
On August 12th, the U.S. declares a public health emergency in Puerto Rico, where at that time well over 10,000 confirmed cases of Zika had occurred, nearly 10% of those with pregnant women.
On August 30th, the CDC noted that it would have no more funds to send to states if new outbreaks occurred.
And, oh, there could be another self-inflicted government shutdown this fall, further complicating health agencies’ abilities to combat Zika as chaos would envelop the funding and budgeting process.
Republicans Chose Politics Over Protecting Americans
Obama has for months repeatedly pleaded with Congressional Republicans to put politics aside in dealing with a potential Zika epidemic, but his efforts to publicly pressure Republicans, as is often the case, thus far have very little to show for them. He is exercising his constitutional duty to protect the American people, but Congress is failing to do its constitutional to pass laws to do the same.
Let’s be clear about how miserably the Republican congressional delegation is failing to do its basic duties, is failing the American people: given the following choice, Republicans chose all the wrong ones:
- xA.) Respond by fully funding Obama’s request to protect Americans from Zika without taking money from other important emergency response programs
- ✓B.) Nickel-and-dime the president on this request and argue over funding levels for a pressing medical emergency when the funding request is relatively very small compared to general congressional spending levels
- ✓C.) Fund Obama’s request by taking money out of the ongoing emergency response to the deadly, horrific Ebola virus
- ✓D.) Pass a Zika bill that does not allow for federal support of contraception programs in trying to fight a virus that is sexually transmitted
- ✓E.) Use Obama’s request to continue the irrational, misleading fight over Planned Parenthood and contraception in general
- ✓F.) Use Obama’s request as a political excuse to defund Obamacare
- ✓G.) Use Obama’s request as a political excuse to loosen general long-term regulations on pesticides that can harm the American people even though exceptions for dealing with emergencies like Zika already exist
- ✓H.) Use Obama’s request as a political excuse to fight for federally funded public displays of the “Confederate” rebel flag, inarguably a symbol of white supremacy
- ✓I.) Blame Obama for not funding a Zika response because he doesn’t give in to outrageous political brinksmanship, à la the shutdown fights
- ✓J.) Keep refusing to fund the emergency response on terms acceptable (or sensible) to the Obama Administration and Democrats in order to force Obama to take money away from programs Republicans don’t like
- ✓K.) Don’t give Obama what he wants because it’s Obama asking for something and giving it to him is a “win” for Obama and Democrats during an election year, or during anything
Without question, Republicans very much did not choose A.), definitely chose B.)through I.), and arguably but quite likely chose J.) and K.).
And all this regarding a public health emergency that could threaten thousands of American babies with lifelong mental defects and others with other conditions. And Democrats are 100% right to oppose B. through H.: to legitimize such political malpractice and allow such tawdry, cheap games to be played with a public health emergency is not a precedent that should be legitimized or tolerated in any way, at any time. Zika is a serious public health emergency that deserves to be treated as an end in and of itself, not to be used as a political football to be kicked around in the process of arguing over unrelated issues. With the fight over Medicaid expansion and the 9/11 first-responders bill, we already saw that the GOP was more than willing to play politics with the health and lives of Americans, and now we have yet another example of such behavior.
The True Republican Party: Disgraceful Long Before Trump & Not to Be Trusted Either with Power or to Keep Americans Safe
Ladies and gentlemen, this choice calculus is today’s Republican Party. And the thing is, none of this has to do with Trump: this is the Republican Party’s style, its governing ethos, its modus operandi, its political philosophy. And this is nothing new: this is how this disgrace of a political party has operated for much of Obama’s time in the White House, for years now. The stupidity, recklessness, and political gamesmanship with which the Republican Party approaches matters of life and death, of public health, of emergency concern, are not in dispute and are made quite clear with the GOP’s behavior regarding the Zika emergency response.
In fact, the Republicans’ actions on Zika are a perfect microcosm of what the Republican Party is and is not: it is a farce and, as I noted last fall, is not a serious party deserving of our respect, let alone our vote.
And, again, for all those who are trying to pin the failure of the Republican Party as a party on Trump, as if somehow the GOP is ok and respectable as long as Trump is removed from the picture, the Zika crisis makes it clear Trump is just one symptom of the disease that is the Republican Party itself.
Without a doubt, then, the Zika example is clear proof that the Republican Party is a disgrace and is not fit for or even capable of governing, with or without Trump. It seems that Trump will lose (though who really knows?!), but Americans need to remember what the real Republican Party is, and not let it get away with deflecting blame away from the party itself onto Trump. Who knows how many cases of Zika, present and future, could have been prevented—how many fewer babies with lifelong damage to their brains there would be, how many fewer mothers would be literally worried sick, how many deaths could have been prevented—if Republicans responded quickly and sensibly in February to Obama’s Zika request.
That request was made February 8th. Tomorrow is September 1st. How much longer will this continue? How much longer will voters tolerate it? As far back as January, experts have been warning that the Gulf Coast, with its hot and humid climate, large mosquito populations, and large segments of populations living in poverty, was very vulnerable to Zika. Many of these locations are in Republican congressional districts; will voters hold their representatives accountable this fall, as Zika spreads and most of these Republicans fail(ed) to protect their people from a fast-spreading disease that can cause serious complications, especially to the unborn?