Essay Public Health Challenges

As Frerichs demonstrates, the hunt for the origins of the epidemic was politicized and fraught because powerful entities—the UN and WHO—had vested interests in obscuring the fact that UN Nepalese peacekeepers, part of MINUSTAH’s (United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti) effort to preserve “law and order” and known to Haitians as “occupiers,” unwittingly carried the bacteria to Haiti.

Frerichs recounts the timeline of events and knowledge production during the epidemic to frame a battle between two theories of cholera’s origin (an environmental theory vs. Frerichs’ account is at its strongest when he draws on his expertise as an epidemiologist to undertake critical readings of artifacts of knowledge that played a key role in how scientists and the public interpreted the epidemic’s events.

The authors urge us to look beneath the surface of global health’s success stories, propped up by quantitative evidence and sentimental representations of suffering strangers waiting to be saved by Northern science, technology, and do-gooders.

Global health is an unwieldy thing, difficult to pin down, yet something everyone agrees is worth doing (Fassin 2012, Taylor 2018).

Haiti, in this snapshot, becomes synonymous with criminality, where whiteness must be protected from blackness, clean from dirty, safety from danger (though Lasker does not analyze such optics).

Haiti has long been, in the Northern imagination, “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966) and attention to enduring histories and geographies of containment would helpfully contextualize the events and rhetoric of 2010, largely presented as a sudden and unfortunate tragedy, rather than as engineered by global forces and politics over long historical time (Button and Schuller 2016, Barrios 2017).

As an anthropologist of science, I was struck throughout the book at how the aesthetics of “evidence” (maps, references to “data”) count as much or more than the content or quality of data themselves (Hodžić 2013).

Yet, even as Frerichs convincingly shows how the clear interests of the UN and its affiliated scientists enabled the science that most benefited its position to rise to the top despite being “,” he does, by virtue of his academic training, believe in a “pure” science that can uncover the truth.

Colonial legacies and forms of expertise about the “tropical” world have become naturalized as global health science, with implications for what and whom global health is (Meyers and Hunt 2014, Geissler et al 2016, Packard 2016), and global health has become institutionalized in Northern universities and curricula where students and faculty relish the opportunity to gain hands-on experience working in hospitals, NGOs, and research institutions in the Global South (Kenworthy, Thomas, and Crane 2018).

The proliferation of clinics, research projects, and technologies across the globe has reconfigured local identities, social relations, economies, and forms of care, prompting anthropologists to take interest in global health as an object of study and critique (Biehl and Petryna 2013, Fan and Uretsky 2017).


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