Power, politics, and vulnerable populations: analyzing the silences of the zika virus response

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University of New Brunswick


The Zika virus outbreak of 2015 was by far the most severe in recorded history. Beginning in Brazil, the virus spread to nearly every geographic area where the mosquito vectors, Aedes aegypti, are found. Recent clinical breakthroughs have discovered that Zika is associated with neurological disorders, including Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and congenital microcephaly. In a political climate with restricted reproductive rights, structures of poverty and patriarchy exacerbate the lived experience of the virus, making women (especially from poor and racialized groups) among the most vulnerable to the disease. This thesis merges traditions from feminist international political economy and structural violence theory to form a new critical approach, examining the World Health Organization’s response to the Zika outbreak in Brazil. Close-reading techniques analyze WHO Zika policy documents and infographics, revealing a profound lack of engagement with social determinants of health, and advice that individualizes and feminizes disease prevention. These analyses examine how it is possible that a significant global health actor could overlook the gendered and socioeconomic dimensions of the Zika outbreak. Ultimately, this thesis reveals that the Zika response is not simply a failure of one organization, but instead, represents a larger system of global inequality and neglect, in which the marginalization of poor, gendered, and racialized groups is structurally sustained. Through a combination of structural violence and institutional passivity, an organization with ostensible attention to social determinants of health still produces policies that fail to engage with gendered or socioeconomic lenses. This research is among the first to analyze the disconnect between public health guidelines and the lived experiences of Zika for vulnerable groups, making an important contribution to an under-explored topic.