Why Ebola is a feminist issue: Sickness, selfhood, and the small purple worm

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

ebola purple worm

We’ve all seen it by now: the electron micrograph of the Ebola virus, cryptically topping headlines from the New York Times to the Daily Mail. It is the picture of Ebola in the U.S.: small, expensive, and high-definition. This tiny, purple worm, though, is not the face of Ebola. The face of Ebola is human. It is, importantly, usually black and usually female. It is a face of fear, desperation, and grinding poverty–electron micrographs have no place in the daily experience of Ebola.

The epidemic, with a death toll of greater than 4,500, is inarguably a health crisis of vast proportions. But so, too, are malaria and tuberculosis, heart disease and traffic accidents. What does the U.S. discourse on Ebola reveal about the ways in which we understand sickness and selfhood?

Vanity Fair ran an article in October entitled “Hell in the Hot Zone.” The piece opens in a “place from the past”: Meliandou, home to the epidemic’s first human Ebola case. “As the forests disappeared” in Meliandou, declares the first page, “so too did the buffer separating humans from animals—and from the pathogens that animals harbor.” Immediately, the placehood of Ebola is depicted as an “elsewhere” in which the lines between human and inhuman are blurred. The article continues with a speculative account of the first vector-to-human transmission of Ebola. “Perhaps, while the mother was preparing the day’s hunt, some of the bat’s blood was flung in the child’s direction. Perhaps, while the mother’s attention was elsewhere, the child touched the animal, then brought his hand to his mouth.”

The Vanity Fair account didn’t end there. A “family dispute,” it claimed, prompted the mother to “march across the village” to infect the baby’s grandmother, sister, and houseguest. The grandmother decided that “summoning a shaman to brandish his fetishes and work his spells” was insufficient and instead consulted a nurse “to see what real medicine could do for her.” The virus spread to a neighboring village when the infected nurse sought medical attention.

Notable, here, are the implied roles of concurrent ignorance, negligence, and coincidence in disease transmission. My aim here is not to question the vector-to-human transmission of the Ebola virus. It is, however, to defamiliarize the imagery employed in the global Ebola dialogue. What purpose do the flinging of bat’s blood, the maternal carelessness and domestic unrest, and brandishing of fetishes and spells serve in this narrative?

Although the disease can undoubtedly be traced to animal vectors, first of all, the vast majority of disease transmission is now human-to-human. Ebola prevention guidelines issued by the CDC and WHO, nevertheless, fixate disproportionately upon the ingestion of “bushmeat”–a “behavior” of ignorance, presumably, which proper education could eradicate. This assumption overestimates not only the prevalence of animal-to-human transmission, but the agency of a population in which hunting is an indispensable source of sustenance. Hunger does little to fortify at-risk populations against viral transmission.

Similar allocations of blame are apparent in Vanity Fair’s account of the pathogen’s progression from child to grandmother, nurse, and–finally–the neighboring village. The story lingers not only upon the mother’s failure to supervise her child while “preparing the day’s hunt,” but her ambiguous “domestic dispute” and ill-informed decision to “share beds.” The backward “fetishes” and “spells,” in contrast to “real” (read: Western) medicine, is likewise accentuated.

An alternative narrative of the Ebola epidemic is visible only between the lines of the Vanity Fair article–a story in which this sickness is merely the most recent symptom in a history of structural violence.

It is a story of colonialism, of racialized globalization, of the persistence of a system in which wealth is allocated to the few and essentials denied to the many. It is the story of sexism, of a gendered distribution of labor in which caregiving–and thus pathogenic exposure–is disproportionately the burden of our female communities. It is the story of poverty, of squalor, of inequality so stark that while the ill of one nation are sustained in negative-pressure biocontainment units, the ill of another have neither soap nor clean water with which to wash their hands. It is a story, centuries in the making, of the very power differentials with which feminists have always concerned themselves.

Feminists should care that 75 percent of Ebola victims are female, certainly. But they should also care because 100 percent of Ebola victims are human. Blood is not a thing of jungles and wild creatures, of an “elsewhere” in which we ourselves have no place. Blood is on all of our hands, yet we are all deserving of health.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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