The recent health crisis has turned the spotlight onto social and gender inequality in Brazil
The scenes of the Brazilian carnival earlier this month are a far cry from the gloomy news otherwise coming out of the country: its economic recession, the possible impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and corruption scandals involving state oil company Petrobras. The country’s situation was aggravated after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Global Emergency, citing the link between the virus and brain deformities in newborns – a condition known as microcephaly.
As is typical when science, technology and media are closely related, – in what sociologist Anthony Giddens terms a “risk society” – news reports revolve around the uncertainty posed by the virus. Although its causes, symptoms and heath complications remain largely unknown, the public has been bombarded by new research findings, interviews with experts and volatile statistics that are often based on suspected rather than confirmed cases. This is not to mention the role of social media in feeding into scaremongering and disseminating unsubstantiated information.
In these circumstances, it was no surprise that the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were at risk of cancellation. Images of President Rousseff wearing a t-shirt printed with the “Zero Zika” campaign slogan, and the army knocking on people’s doors to raise awareness about the virus testify to the mega-operation to eliminate the mosquito.
The repercussions of the virus have been as much about its social implications as its health complications. The Zika virus has often been associated in the international media with the “female poor”: Reuters branded it the “disease of the poor” in an article that centred on the difficulties facing a pregnant teenage girl living in a slum in Brazil. This is largely due to the fact that areas with inadequate sewage systems and waste management create stagnant water, where the Aedes aegypti mosquitos can breed.
Some research claims that pregnant women bitten by the mosquito are liable to give birth to babies with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. This triggered some major debates on choice and the female body: two concepts which do not always sit easily together in the affected regions. In fact, the authorities advised women to delay pregnancies, which Bill McKibben described as “dystopian” in his article in the Guardian:
“Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable. Or rather, it is something out of a science fiction story, the absolute core of a dystopian future.”
“The three-letter word missing from the Zika warnings” – men. In her pertinent article for Dame, Paula Young Lee draws attention to the marked absence of men in discussions about the virus, resulting from a patriarchal society’s tendency to hold women solely accountable for pregnancy. Lee’s argument resonates with the controversy engendered by the pronouncements made by Marcelo Castro, Brazil’s Health Minister. Castro declared, among other equally ludicrous statements, that “sex is for amateurs, pregnancy for professionals”.
Indeed, the Zika epidemic has not only unmasked precarious urban development, but also public policies and procedures that oppress women, as well as the religious morality informing official discourse. Issues of prevention, health assistance for women and pregnancy prompted contestation of Brazil’s strict abortion law.
Drauzio Varella, a TV personality, author of the best-selling memoir Estação Carandiru and arguably Brazil’s most popular doctor, told BBC Brazil that abortion is already happening in the country and that “it only takes money and favourable conditions”. Varella’s statement that the strict abortion law in Brazil “punishes poor women” highlights the contaminating notion that the country has yet to fight, which is instigated by social and gender inequalities.
There is hope that science and technology will turn the outbreak into a bad memory for the country. Likewise, the recent international attention to women’s health and rights in Brazil, and more generally in South America, will hopefully not be in vain. But for the moment, it only takes one winged creature to expose to the world how Brazil’s persistent inequalities prevent the country from fighting against its malaises. In turn, these compromise major investments such as the Olympic Games: Brazil’s very attempt to boost the country’s morale and its international image.
Image from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3445521/Brazil-troops-battle-Zika-mosquitoes.html
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