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The failure of colonial ‘distancing’: Changing representations of the 2005–06 chikungunya epidemic in Réunion, France

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In 2005–06, the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, an overseas department of France, experienced a massive epidemic of the mosquito-borne viral infection chikungunya. Public health authorities in metropolitan France were arguably slow to react, and we explore their representations and management of the epidemic in the context of tropicality and colonial discourse. We analyse official reports on the epidemic from the bulletins of the Institut de Veillance Sanitaire (Institute for Health Surveillance) for changes in representations of risk posed by chikungunya to metropolitan France, in the emphasis on control measures for the epidemic and in descriptions of chikungunya case symptomatologies, and compare these with parallel representations of another epidemic, flu, already known in metropolitan France. Our findings illustrate that official responses to chikungunya at the beginning of the epidemic are suggestive of a centred tropicality: there is no perceived risk to metropolitan France because of its nontropical climate; thus, there is no justification for costly control measures for a disease inevitable in the tropics; and therefore the symptoms of French nationals in overseas departments in the tropics can be described in detached terms so as to generate knowledge about the disease. However, this ‘distancing’ fails with the perceived risk to metropolitan France towards the end of the epidemic in late 2006, when representations are more consistent with a decentred tropicality: the concept of a protective metropolitan French climate is abandoned; the need for a whole-of-society involvement in control measures is accepted; and symptoms are described using more inclusive language. Similar changes are not found in official reports on the flu epidemic.
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Keywords: Réunion; chikungunya; colonialism; distancing; epidemic; tropicality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Humanities, University of Western Australia, Crawley Western Australia

Publication date: 2008-07-01

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