Charles Briggs’ critique of a 1992-93 cholera outbreak in Venezuela illuminates that ways with which public health officials and organizations sometimes make matters worse when trying to intervene in major health crises. This interference happens both intentionally and unintentionally, but ultimately occurs through three variations of the erasure processes: 1) those that erase connections between local and global issues, ideas, and social groups (creating global hierarchies, which then ostracize those groups seen as “hopelessly local”); 2) those that erase continuities between science and particular societies, who are then deemed incapable of understanding biomedical treatments for their respective diseases; 3) those that undermine and erase certain groups’ ability to produce authoritative discourses about disease (Briggs, 2004).
Briggs summates how the culturally inappropriate and unrealistic biomedical treatments suggested by public health organizations to treat a cholera epidemic in Venezuela only isolated indigenous populations suffering form the disease, and then prevented these populations from receiving the treatment they needed:
The early days of the epidemic were catastrophic for vernacular healers. When the first cases appeared, curers tried techniques commonly used to treat other diarrheal diseases—therapeutic massage, singing, and the ingestion of tobacco smoke. Patients did not respond to treatment. Healers’ hands became contaminated by diarrheas. In an area where soap is rare and people eat with their hands, many healers became infected, and as many as half died in some communities. The dreams to reveal the source of pathogens and empower curers to treat ailments did not come.
Similar processes of erasure were rampant during the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti, where displaced populations now live permanently in refugee-style tent camps that lack water sanitation and serve as cholera breeding grounds. Much controversy has arisen over whether foreign humanitarian groups like the Red Cross and World Health Organization, which have both advocated the use of cost-effective retroactive medication to treat cholera as opposed to more systemic and long-term solutions—like infrastructural improvements—because they are more expensive. Some opponents of the cost-efficiency model claim that this is a form of structural and political violence committed against Haitians by its corrupt government and by financially dominant western nations. One critical journalist writes, “And the old Dixie planter and enslavers’ negative energetic field possessing their minds keep these vultures and vampires in power, prestige and projecting humanity into this unmitigated profit-over-people-and-the-environment nightmare.” What do you think?
Below is a video of cholera-causing waste water being dumped from the UN battalion directly onto the beach in Port Salut, Haiti.