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Lessons from Zika in the Era of COVID-19

By CHADI NABHAN, MD, MBA, FACP

If you are a soccer fan, watching the FIFA World Cup is a ritual that you don’t ever violate. Brazilians, arguably more than any other fans in the world, live and breathe soccer—and they are always expected to be a legitimate contender to win it all. Their expectations are magnified when they are the host country, which was the case in 2014. Not only did the Germans destroy Brazilian World Cup dreams, but less than a year after a humiliating loss on their turf, Brazilians began dealing with another devastating blow: a viral epidemic. Zika left the country scrambling to understand how to manage the devastation caused by the virus and grappling with conspiracies theories of whether the virus was linked to the tourism brought by hosting the FIFA World Cup.

How did I become so interested in what happened in Brazil five years ago? Well, social distancing and being mostly at home in the era of COVID-19 seems to energize reflection. Watching politicians on TV networks blaming each other and struggling to appear more knowledgeable than scientists makes me marvel at the hubris. My mind took me back to several prior epidemics that we encountered from Swine Flu to Ebola, and I couldn’t help but think about the lessons lost. What did we miss in these previous crises to land us in this current state where Zoom is your best friend and you are more interested in commenting on tweets than doing a peer-review? One cannot help but wonder what is so different about this coronavirus that it has paralyzed the globe.

I decided to take a deep dive into the Zika epidemic in a hopeful effort to better understand the present public health crisis. I started by reading Zika: The Emerging Epidemic, by Donald G. McNeil Jr, who also covers global epidemics for the New York Times. The book is a fascinating read and offers illuminating parallels to the current failings we are seeing with national and global health protection agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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