Pandemics, epidemics, and contagious disease outbreaks are rarely ever simply issues of ill-health to be resolved by doctors, pharmacists, nurses and health advocates. Instead, there is a political and power lens that determines who suffers, who dies, who benefits and who cares. There has been many a discussion held on how this was manifested in the Ebola outbreak. Glancing at the news coverage of the Zika virus,however, this power dynamic particularly as it relates to gender and race is also evident.
According to the Wilson Center’s How Zika Is Shaping the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Agenda the population most affected by Zika in Brazil are poor women of Afro-Brazilian descent. Lacking the basic services and infrastructure, these women are more likely to be affected by the mosquito-borne virus and once affected to lack access to a range of services from psychosocial support to access to abortion services or health care for their microcephaly -affected babies.
The announcement from Health ministries across Latin America and the Caribbean for women to avoid getting pregnant shows a problematic understanding of power in intimate heterosexual relationships. Women do not get pregnant by themselves and in some cases, do not have the knowledge or power to decide when to get pregnant. Citizens expressed their anger that there has not been a corresponding announcement geared at men to not impregnate women particularly considering that the Zika virus can be transmitted by sperm up to six months after the transmission. Secondly, announcements such as these fail to take into account the number of forced and unwanted sexual assaults against women and girls. Thirdly, in many of the countries with these types of announcements, family planning is not widespread and there are restrictive abortion laws in several states, abortion is a criminal act.
Even as it relates to funding there is a great deal of politics involved. Within the US, Congress, which is predominantly male in its composition, has taken a recess for the summer before approving the funding for Zika, among the reasons cited had to do with issues around abortion and the Affordable Care Act.
To drive the point home, we have a vector-borne disease which has the most negative impact on pregnant women as it can result in severe brain defects in their babies. The persons who make and decide the laws, policies, funding and interventions are often not sensitive to the racial, gender and wealth inequalities that partly determines who is affected by the virus and can afford to issue statements lacking their relevant contexts or can head off on their summer vacations while women, couples, and families worry whether their unborn child will be healthy or worry how they will provide for their child with microcephaly.