MIAMI – The Zika virus appears poised to have a field day in Florida. The state already leads the nation in the number of Zika cases.
The situation is dire enough that Florida Republican members of Congress, like Marco Rubio, who usually march in lock-step with party leaders are breaking rank and advocating for the $1.8 billion in funding requested by President Barack Obama.
The violation of the unwritten rule of the GOP Congress—if Obama is for it we are against it—is no small thing for a Republican. The situation is such, however, that even Governor Rick Scott has joined the bandwagon asking for the funding.
There are several reasons why Florida is ground zero for the Zika epidemic and Miami-Dade is at the very epicenter of it.
For one, the virus is spread in two ways that are extremely abundant here: mosquitos and sex. Zika could not have asked for a more welcoming environment.
Then there is the fact that Miami is, as the public relations people say, at the crossroads of the Americas. Goods and people cross the border here but so do viruses and other unwanted cargo. When an infected person enters from say, Brazil, who may well be a resident of this area, that’s one new case. If they have sex and the partner gets infected, that makes two.
Then there is a third factor equally or more important: the pathetic response from the government at every level—local, state and federal. The situation is not unique to this area or this country, of course. In InfoCatólica, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, referring to the situation in Brazil, wrote: “The absolute truth is this: in the countries in which people are affected by mosquito-borne diseases, the fault is not with these [the mosquitos], the real fault lies in the mediocre actions of governments, the lack of organization and leadership” (my translation).
Exhibit A of this syndrome is Miami-Dade county government. This area has by far more contact with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean than any other place in the state. We also have the biggest population and the most money.
It stands to reason that mosquito control should be most vigorous here. Yet, as the Herald reported, “The New York Times pointed out that Miami-Dade County, with a population of 2.8 million, ‘“spends just $1.8 million on mosquito control [per year], enough for a staff of 17, of whom 12 are inspectors. In contrast, Lee County, home to Fort Myers and 660,000 people, spends $16 million a year and has a staff of 88.”’ And yet Mayor Gimenez has the gall to defend this shameful track record.
So far the state response has not been much better, as Herald editorialist Fabiola Santiago, hardly a knee-jerk liberal she, has pointed out.
The most significant failure in dealing with the Zika problem, however, has to be placed at the feet of the Republican congress, where, in the words of a Miami Herald headline, “Fight over Zika funds rages with first U.S. death, Florida ‘crisis.’”
Republicans in Congress who live outside the center of the Zika outbreak are trotting out the same old, tired arguments they have repeatedly used to deny climate change and to do nothing about it.
Take Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn: “Our [Democratic] friends across the aisle have requested a $1.9 billion blank check, and they haven’t told us what the plan is for the use of the funds.” Cornyn added that the emergency funds requested by Obama would be “deficit spending that adds to the debt.” “The [Nelson] legislation completely lacks any sort of accountability that would only come through a regular appropriations process where we consider this in a deliberate sort of way.”
This is boilerplate Republican strategy: deny, delay.
Epidemics, unfortunately, don’t spread at the glacial speed of the congressional appropriations process. They tend to move fast and furious.
Cornyn may not feel the urgency of the problem, but Democrats and Republicans who live here certainly do. Florida Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said: “As I’ve said for months, this is an unfolding public health crisis in Florida and Puerto Rico and, soon, other parts of the nation.” Other women Democratic members of congress also reacted ferociously against the Republican stance. That’s both predictable and entirely justified. Pregnant women infected with Zika often give birth to babies with extremely serious brain defects.
What was less predictable but no less justified is advocacy on behalf of Obama’s requested funding from the likes of Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio. I quote him as his words appeared in the Miami Herald:
“I met with doctors who live in Miami-Dade County and also officials in Miami-Dade County. They are freaked out about the Zika thing. I don’t know any other term to use. If they are freaked out, then I am very concerned about it as well.”
“Rubio warned that with a large number of Zika cases already documented in Brazil, tens of thousands of people potentially exposed to the virus will travel through Florida and other states to and from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“It is the obligation of the federal government to keep our people safe, and this is an imminent and real threat to the public safety and security of our nation and our people. So the money is going to be spent. The question is: Do we do it now, before this has become a crisis, or do we wait for it to become a crisis?’”
Rubio is right. “To provide for the general welfare” is an obligation of the national government inscribed on one of the foundational texts of this republic. Such sensible words from such an unlikely source are especially welcome.
The Republican “conservatives” that oppose both Rubio and Obama remind me of the nineteenth century British “conservatives” that in the midst of the potato famine let the people of Ireland starve or emigrate en masse rather than deviate from the doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism and offer relief. The population of the Emerald Isle did not recover for more than a century.