April 21, 2016

The Multiple Faces of the Zika Virus

Happy Mwende Kinyili
This article is written by:

Happy Mwende Kinyili

Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde reminds us of an important truth; “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” [1] Following the Zika virus outbreak, many of the responses from women’s rights organisations around the world have focused on how the actions proposed by different governments will result in the violations of the sexual and reproductive rights of pregnant women and women of childbearing age. In keeping with Sister Audre’s wisdom, I would like to add three important, and not as often considered, dimensions to this conversation: disability justice, economic justice and racial justice.

On 1st February 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean a public health emergency of international concern. Following this declaration, a global coordinated response has been launched to minimise the threat of infection in affected countries and the spread of the virus to other parts of the world. Pregnant women and women of childbearing age in affected countries have been identified as specific communities that need special attention to minimise the spread of the virus.

Zika virus and reproductive justice

Following the outbreak, several governments in the region called on women to delay getting pregnant for periods ranging from six to eight months, all the way to two years. However, this directive ignores the reality of sexual and reproductive health services in the affected countries where contraceptives are often too expensive to access thus limiting their use, and the laws severely restrict abortion access.

Due to these restrictive conditions many women in the region are unable to access reproductive health services and therefore determine their reproductive futures. The most marginalised communities of women – communities that include young women, impoverished women, indigenous women, racialised women, disabled women and rural women – have even more restricted access to reproductive health services and thus less autonomy over their reproductive choices. Consequently, women’s rights and feminist organisations such as FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund immediately decried this directive and demanded that governments ensure universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive services.

Zika virus and disability justice

The responses to the outbreak of the Zika virus are also exacerbating the oppression of disabled people. The oppressive language used to describe the possible correlation of the Zika virus and babies born with microcephaly, such as by the Director-General of the WHO and the Brazilian health minister, continues to reinforce the disablist idea that there is a singular and medically-determined definition of ‘normal’, and any deviation from this ‘normal’ leads to charges of ‘abnormality’, ‘malformation’ and ‘damage’. It is against this backdrop of oppressive language and oppressive cultural norms that the demands for abortion access for pregnant women infected by the Zika virus should be heard and considered.

The work of the disability rights movement in challenging the norms surrounding disability-selective abortion, that is an abortion done when the pregnancy may result in a disabled child, becomes particularly pertinent to this discussion. Disability rights activist Marsha Saxton challenges us to be critical of “‘common sense’ assumptions that prenatal screening and selective abortion can potentially reduce the incidence of disease and disability and thus improve the quality of life.”
These assumptions are under-girded by a medical model of disability, which views disability as a physical condition that is inherent to a person and that reduces their quality of life.

A different view of disability, the social model of disability, challenges these assumptions as it posits that it is society which disables people due to its failures to create systems and norms that allow a diversity of bodies access, dignity and rights.

Since some of the responses to the Zika virus outbreak perpetuate a disablist view of the world, we must ensure that calls for abortion access do not support this view, as disability rights activists have rightly cautioned. To this end, the demand for abortion access for all women must be coupled with the demand for legal, health and social services for all disabled people.  

Zika virus and economic justice

As this article by Brazilian feminist Debora Diniz highlights, the impact of the virus in Brazil mirrors the economic inequalities and oppression that exists in the country. The outbreak of the virus is concentrated in the communities of young, poor, black and brown women. This is because these communities live in mosquito-infested areas and neighbourhoods with low-quality housing that have poor drainage systems resulting in stagnant water – the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. The economic impoverishment in these communities often means that it is difficult for these women to protect themselves from mosquito bites and the resulting infections. In these communities, other mosquito-transmitted infections such as dengue and chikungunya are already endemic.

Zika virus and racial justice

The Zika virus, like other mosquito-transmitted infections, is viewed and treated through the public health lens of ‘tropical disease’. ‘Tropical diseases’ like Zika virus are those diseases prevalent in the tropical regions of the world and are the focus of tropical medicine. The discipline of tropical medicine emerged during the colonial period and was intended to serve the colonialists’ plans for occupation of ‘foreign’ territories. This meant that its primary aim was to ensure the preservation of the health of European settlers and, consequently, ignored the health of indigenous communities. When considering indigenous bodies, tropical medical primarily understood indigenous bodies as the ‘purveyors of disease’ and thus a threat to the health of European bodies. This meant that investments in tropical medicine and ‘tropical diseases’ were aimed at combatting risk to European bodies.

The discipline of tropical medicine has changed over the years, and the field pays increasing attention to the impact of diseases on indigenous bodies. However, ‘tropical diseases’ still bear the burden of the legacies of colonialism, economic oppression and underinvestment. For example, dengue fever is endemic in more than 100 countries and the disease affects an estimated 50 million people each year. However, there remains no effective treatment for the disease and current methods for controlling transmission are ineffective and very costly. The WHO, recognising this, called for an increased investment in neglected ‘tropical diseases’ from Member States. Despite this call from the WHO, there is still very little financial and research investment in treating ‘tropical diseases’ or, if a treatment is available, in getting the treatment to infected and affected communities. This is demonstrated in the case of the Zika virus, where, since the first documented outbreak of the virus in 2007, financial and research resources dedicated to finding a treatment or a solution to this mosquito-transmitted infection are minimal.


In responding to the Zika virus outbreak, the calls from women’s rights organisations have demanded comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health services for all women in the affected countries. To ensure that the response to this Zika virus outbreak addresses all the multiple issues brought to the fore by this public health emergency, governments need to put in place legal, social and health care services needed for all disabled people to live justly and with dignity.

The economic dimensions of the Zika outbreak also demand targeted responses. Healthcare services as well as preventative measures must be provided to economically impoverished communities that are hardest hit by the Zika virus. In this response the safety and dignity of these communities must also be protected and thus all preventative measures must be implemented in partnership with the affected communities.

Finally, as an important step towards ending racial oppression, all former colonial nations that are responsible for the oppressive legacy tied to ‘tropical diseases’ such as Zika should immediately dedicate increased financial and research resources to the eradication of these diseases and the alleviation of the economic burden they place on already economically impoverished communities.

[1] Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches, 1984: Audre Lorde.

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