The Zika Virus, Poverty and Environmental Feminism By: Keenan Buchanan, Meredith Hood, Jamie Pence, Mackenzie Abel
Gender and nature are social constructs we have created, and how they are perceived is a matter of social and historical reality. Historically, women have been linked with nature and thus the domination of women and nature have been interconnected. Due to this deep rooted connection one “ism” cannot be stopped unless they both are, which is why ecofeminists argue that in order to promote a better respect for all humans, we must first have a respect for the environment. This is especially evident in third world countries where women are the main providers of fuel, food, and water. When nature is depleted and pushed to the limit for “developments”, which also can affect and change the culture, women suffer a greater amount of negative consequences than men overall (Clowney and Mosto, 243-263; 273-282). An example of this is the current Zika virus crisis.
The Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus. Viral infections during pregnancy are the foremost cause of maternal and fetal illness and mortality. Neonate transplacentally, prenatal-before birth-or postnatal-after birth-infections have impacts on the fetus or baby. The virus was first identified in Uganda in 1952 in humans, earlier discovered in monkeys. The symptoms are in most cases mild, involving: fever, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain and headaches. Symptoms normally occur for 2-7 days. The virus has no long lasting effects on the general public. However, during recent outbreaks in Brazil and French Polynesia national health authorities have reported potential neurological and autoimmune complications associated with the virus (World Health Organization). Researchers have found evidence linking the Zika outbreaks and microcephaly of children with mothers that obtain the virus while pregnant. Microcephaly is a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than the average, resulting from the brain developing abnormally in the womb or not growing properly after birth (Microcephaly).
Over the last five years, the virus has been reported in the Pacific/Oceania, Americas and Africa, indicating a rapid geographic expansion, some conclude has resulted from global warming. The growing conversation focused on increasing the global community, after the breakout of Ebola, has given this virus considerable attention (World Health Organization). This outbreak has led to the declaration of a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, even threatening the 2016 Summer Olympics which are scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro (McNeil, et al) Health ministers from five different nations have asked women to delay having children (McNeil, et al). This request, however, is not an optimal solution in countries where women have limited access to resources and control over their bodies.
Zika is a disease of poverty. The populations most affected by this virus are poor communities living near open water that attract mosquitoes. They lack the resources for prevention methods (World Health Organization).
The countries that have reported ongoing Zika virus outbreaks, as the graph below shows, are mostly under the 50th top countries with regards to UN development index. The UN Development program website defines the Human Development Index (HDI) as “a summary of measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development (per country): a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living”. Through a study of the countries schooling, life expectancy, and GDP (among more) the UN development program gives a country an HDI “score” or “composite index”. In any case, there are only three countries that have ongoing Zika virus outbreaks that are above the 50th highest scores on the HDI ranking list; the three countries are also technically territories with small populations owned by other countries. The mean score for the countries is .728, which if that was a country in of itself would be considered only on the cusp of being a country with a “high development index”. What this all means, is that poorer countries, like the ones in Central and South America are more susceptible to outbreaks based on economic standing in the world.
It is important to acknowledge the Zika Virus from the perspective of poverty, especially in relation to ecofeminism. There are two different kinds of poverty: culturally perceived poverty and real poverty, with the distinction lying between perception and reality. A third world or underdeveloped country may have different means of obtaining resources, but all of their needs are still being met, perhaps even with an average or above average quality of life. However, since these methods may differ from that of a first world or a developed country, it could easily be perceived as that country living in poverty. (For example, if people wear handmade garments of natural fiber rather than synthetics.) The difference between culturally perceived poverty and real poverty, then, has to do with a difference in worldview. What appears to be an impoverished standard of living to one nation may not be to another. Real poverty, however, is an actual denial of basic needs. (Clowney and Mosto, 279-281).This is the case with the Zika Virus crisis in many parts of the infected world. Without access to proper preventative resources, the Zika Virus is more likely to spread (McNeil, et al).
This is especially important, in regards to feminism, as these countries’ women simply cannot afford to buy birth control to help stop the spread of the Zika virus and prevent babies with microcephaly from being born. Mothers’ that are informed of the diagnosis of their child are not able to have the option of an abortion due to national laws. There are other factors at play as to why these countries cannot buy birth control for many reasons: religious, social, even law. The recent increase of babies born with microcephaly has sparked debates throughout the country of Brazil regarding their abortion laws. Currently the procedure is illegal. Legal scholars within the country are preparing to go to court to fight for the rights of women. They argue that pregnant women should have the right chose the fate of their fetus once a diagnosis is known. As of now, no decisions have been finalized in regards to changing or adapting abortion laws. But, focusing on just economic power, women in these countries may not even be able to afford birth control for the prevention of pregnancy even if countries in these regions offer for reduced prices.
As with other outbreaks, policies and the reactions of other countries will determine how they are combated. The poor world has changed fundamentally over the course of history. The development crisis of countries is paralleled with the crisis with feminism. The crisis begins with the mistaken identity of culturally perceived poverty and real material poverty. The view the West has of these countries begins the discussion. Do we take the deep ecology perspective and let nature take its course or do we follow the duty based ethic principle and “fix” what the Western World has created?
The Western World has placed an oppressive conceptual framework on third world countries. We see ourselves as superior, as a separate entity and dominate. The logic of domination falls as the country is not as successful or influential amongst the world. This is the view of the ecofeminists, and it is still prevalent today.
Following the 2014 Ebola epidemic, the world took notice. Many influential countries throughout the world took action to prevent the spread of the disease. Ebola is a disease of everyone, not just the poor, unlike the Zika virus. The world reacted in such a fashion because of the potential threat it had on the entire world. The Zika virus is an emerging story and officials believe it could be under the radar for many years to come. Following the framework that the world followed during the Ebola crisis, action will not be taken worldwide until developed countries believe they are at threat. A critique on this way of thinking could be the starting point in the search for a solution to the Zika Virus.