It would have been woeful if lessons from the Ebola epidemic had gone unlearnt when the world awoke to the threat posed by Zika. These are the need to be in front of a contagious illness that crosses borders easily and not be trailing it; declaring an international public health emergency promptly; girding healthcare systems to cope with mass infection; and preparing the community well ahead to prevent the spread of diseases. Singaporeans had been alerted earlier to the inevitability, rather than mere possibility, of Zika's arrival here, given the hub status of the city.
That came to pass when a Singapore permanent resident was confirmed to have been infected during a business trip to Brazil. He recovered fully after his return, which means no risk is posed even if he is bitten by an Aedes aegypti mosquito (the primary transmitter of the virus). But with the Olympic Games in Brazil three months away, Zika cases might appear here again then, if not sooner, via another source. After all, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia have all reported Zika-related infections since 2010.
Zika is an epidemical disease of the times, driven by globalisation and global warming. Rising temperatures and intermittent showers act together to help Aedes larvae to mature faster. That itself should have spurred action much earlier as the Aedes mosquito is also a carrier of dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and other diseases. Ironically, Brazil - associated closely with Zika - was among the South American countries that had almost eliminated the insects with frequent fumigation by the early 1960s. But when defences were down, the menace returned.
One can place some hope in research to find ingenious ways of killing off mosquitoes, like making them sterile via genetic modification. But Singaporeans are better off placing greater faith in vector control - an unceasing war against a pernicious pest that must involve every citizen and not be left to the authorities alone. Danger lurks in high-rise, dense urban settings, where pools of clean stagnant water (favoured by the Aedes mosquito for breeding) are common. Potted plants on balconies, litter in public areas and poor drainage can offer millions of hidden opportunities for mosquitoes to multiply and harm people over wide areas. The high risk of transnational contagion means that neighbouring countries ought to recognise the benefit of working closely with each other. It would be folly to allow bureaucrats, with a misguided sense of nationalism, to dictate the scope of possible cooperation without, for example, making any effort to consult friendly nations. Zika's threat is insidious because it is transmitted by a common insect and causes only mild flu-like or no symptoms at all. Concerted action is necessary, given the possible birth defects and temporary paralysis that the virus can cause.