Decolonizing Epidemics: Power Structures that Define, Name, and Frame Medical Disasters

Elizabeth Ferguson

Advisor: Heidi Y. Lawrence, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Isidore Dorpenyo, Douglas Eyman

Fenwick Library, #1014 A
April 15, 2019, 01:00 PM to 04:00 PM


The 2014 Ebola Epidemic was an international medical crisis that tested the world’s capabilities to respond to a large-scale medical disaster. I argue that international technical communication needs to take a critical approach to studying cites of medical disasters because the historical colonial power structures have not been sufficiently disrupted. Therefore, it is imperative to understand where power is derived and how that power is communicated during a medical disaster. Power rests with those who have the clout to define, name, and describe an event because those three elements shape the type of response. This dissertation conducts three case studies involving the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The first case study looks at who can define a crisis by offering a multi-disciplinary review of the terms outbreak and epidemic and then studies how these terms are deployed within the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The second case study looks at who gets to name a crisis, local government (government of Guinea) and responders local to the event (MSF) versus international experts (WHO). Finally, the last case study examines who has the power to describe the crisis by following the first warnings from the Guinean government to the bushmeat narrative that emerged.