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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
rom late 2015 through early 2016, a new vector-borne epidemic swept across the Americas, the Pacific, and much of Southeast Asia, bringing new attention to questions of connection across different spaces, species, and sociopolitical orders. Like both dengue and West Nile, Zika virus is passed from person to person by mosquitoes, primarily Aedes aegypti. But unlike dengue and West Nile, Zika is also transmitted by direct sexual contact between humans. In the vast majority of cases, symptoms are mild or else the infection goes unnoticed. For a pregnant woman, however, infection with Zika poses a very different set of risks: spreading from woman to fetus, Zika virus can cause microcephaly and other birth defects in newborn infants. Though officially ended, the multiple effects of the global epidemic are still being felt today.
On July 29, 2016, Florida Governor Rick Scott called a press conference to announce four cases of local mosquito-borne Zika infection in Miami: the first in the continental United States. In response to both the threat and reality of infection, mosquito control workers began to spray the city from the air with insecticides, while public health officials went door to door collecting blood samples for testing and handing out Zika prevention kits stocked with standing water treatment tabs, mosquito spray, and condoms. In an unprecedented development, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first ever travel advisory against an area of the continental United States, warning pregnant women to steer clear of certain Miami neighborhoods.
Despite ongoing efforts to alter mosquitoes genetically, mosquito control programs still depend heavily on spraying insecticides from light aircraft when they want to treat large areas. In an interview, however, U.S. CDC Director Thomas Friedman told reporters that Miami Beach posed significant “challenges” for the conventional use of airborne insecticides; chief among these was the emergent morphology of the built environment itself (United States Centers for Disease Prevention and Control 2016; also see McKenna 2016). Projecting air-conditioned comfort high into the air, at least for the wealthy few that can afford it, the towering condominiums and apartment blocks that scrape Miami Beach’s skyline made it much harder for local mosquito control officials to deliver insecticides to the right places at the right doses.
The challenge arises not simply because the high-rise buildings pose a physical impediment to low-flying aircraft, however; tall buildings also create atypical convection currents that disturb the even dispersal of insecticidal chemicals. A precise science, the delivery of insecticides depends on the qualities and properties of the chemical formula, the mechanism of its application, and the environmental conditions into which it is introduced—including variables such as airflow, temperature, and humidity (McKenna 2016). In this way, the material agency of the local airscape is itself recruited as a vector for the distribution of protection against mosquito-borne disease. But while airborne insecticides helped stem the tide of disease in relatively low-lying Wynwood, the first Miami neighborhood to experience local mosquito-borne transmission of Zika, the vertiginous urbanism of Miami Beach generated an atmosphere hostile to the application of typical disease control tactics.
This fact forced mosquito control workers to rely on spraying smaller areas from trucks or backpacks. Able to breed in a bottlecap of water, Aedes aegypti transforms even the smallest cracks and crevices of the built environment into a potential harbinger of disease. As they move throughout the city, mosquito control workers treat standing water with chemicals that kill mosquito larvae. “Potholes, flowerpots, birdbaths, tires—virtually anything can become a mosquito breeding ground,” one Florida mosquito control worker told me during fieldwork in 2018, calling attention to the concrete implications of uneven urban textures for the spread or containment of mosquito-borne disease within urban-ecological space.
The precise social contours of urban space also matter. Even as the high-rise landscape of Miami Beach impeded the application of airborne insecticides, creating a paranoid space of potential debility, the air-conditioned interiors of the penthouse apartments simultaneously function as spheres of immunization that protect their wealthy inhabitants from exposure to disease (Sloterdijk 2016). Living their daily lives closer to the rough ground in which Aedes aegypti flourishes, middle- and especially working-class Floridians without the luxury of such insulation are far more likely to contract Zika, dengue, and other mosquito-borne diseases. Though in part shared, then, risk is not uniformly distributed in vectorial space; architectural and infrastructural verticality engenders biopolitical effects.
To take a vectorial view of morbidity and mortality shifts perspectives from sites, scapes, and scales to movement, magnitude, and milieu. Rather than spreading inexorably across a two-dimensional plane, as conventional genres of epidemiological cartography often depict them, these movements and magnitudes extend in three-dimensional space; the vectorial is thus inescapably volumetric. The effects of high-rise living on vector-borne diseases constitute but a single aspect of this complex story. Both mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted, the proliferation of Zika virus depends on a wide array of relations forged between a wide range of other biotic and abiotic actors. In a worrying twist on more established mosquito-borne viruses, for instance, the flow of semen and blood have been identified as a potential vector for the transmission of Zika; mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease are also known to hitch rides between continents on the global trade of used tires.
In Miami, the volumetricity of biosocial space is in turn shaped by the broader currents of labor and capital that distinguish the city as a global epicenter of trade, tourism, migration, and investment, as well as a “hotspot” for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases within both the United States and the Greater Caribbean. In this way, the luxury, high-rise condominiums and apartment blocks that shape the Miami Beach skyline are themselves an artifact of the international flow of investment capital (another “vector”) within an increasingly financialized real estate sector, which together privilege the insulated aspirations of a global elite at the expense of the health and wellbeing of local working classes, many of them migrant service workers. In the shadows of such insulated aspirations, new topologies of value and violence are today taking shape.
McKenna, Maryn. 2016. “Zika’s Accidental Ally: Miami’s Luxury High-Rises,” National Geographic. Accessed January 20, 2019. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/zikas-accidental-ally-miamis-luxury-high-rises.
Sloterdijk, Peter. 2011. Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
United States Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. 2016. “Transcript for CDC Telebriefing: Zika Virus Update—August 19.” Accessed January 20, 2019. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/t0819-zika-update.html.