Health dispossessions and the moralization of disease: The case of diarrhea in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

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Despite the swift development of Vietnam's water supply and sanitation (wat/san) sector, over the last ten years there have been 1.5 million annual documented cases of diarrhea. Western perspectives blame insufficient medical or economic advancement for failing to prevent diarrhea and its treatment, failing to grasp how disease is shaped in the cultural, moral and political domain. This article examines the nature and function of public health policy and discourse against the spread of the disease in Can Tho City, Mekong Delta. Some 94 qualitative interviews were conducted with government representatives, medical staff and water experts, and a survey of 131 households in urban and rural areas. Focusing only on improving the construction of wat/san 'hardware' does not improve 'cultural software', and ignores the needs of vulnerable minorities, compromising the control of diarrhea. I also show how state discourse follows neoliberal approaches in individualizing health responsibilities, and moralizing disease. Local (mis)perceptions and risky behaviors emerge as the result of structural constraints that include poverty, a lack of access to useful health information, and the cultivation of stigma around diarrhea. These types of health dispossessions serve a political purpose, where the state escapes responsibility for public health failures, and thus enhancing its efforts to maintain legitimacy as a good implementer and a 'caring head.'
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-109
JournalJournal of Political Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • Blame discourse
  • Diarrhea
  • Health individualization
  • Moralization of disease
  • Public health
  • Vietnam


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