Colonialism and Public Health: The Case of the Rinderpest Virus in Oromia Regional State in Ethiopia

Colonialism and Public Health: The Case of the Rinderpest Virus in Oromia Regional State in Ethiopia

By Begna F Duggesa (PhD)


Background: Colonizers usually present their agenda in positive terms–theirs is a civilizing mission and they pretend to be healers. For the colonized people, on the other hand, colonialism represents poverty and disease or at least disease-causing agents. In Oromia, the rinderpest virus (RPV) epidemic is one of the pathways by which colonialism and racist mindsets caused famine, poverty, diseases and millions of deaths.

Objective: The objective of this paper is to learn from the past, envision a better future by preventing infectious diseases, diversify the economy, develop public health institutions, promote healthy public policy and guarantee food security.

Methods: In this paper, using documents and oral narrative analyses, I explore the origin of RPV and its impacts on human lives and natural environments in Oromia.

Findings: In 1887, the Italian army stationed in Massawa-the Red Sea port had brought cattle infected with RPV. The Abyssinian army seized the cattle and unwittingly introduced this infectious disease to the highlands of the present state of Eritrea. In the 1880s, Abyssinia- supported by the European empire builders was expanding its colonial territories and in the process annexed Oromia and introduced RPV. RPV epidemics, compounded with the Abyssinian colonial war and widespread looting, caused famine in Oromia and accounted for the deaths of two-thirds of the Oromo people.

Conclusion: The RPV epidemic made the Oromo people easily succumb to Abyssinian rule and hindered their aspirations to rebel against the siege. RPV persisted in Oromia for over 120 years and severely harmed Oromo social, cultural and political institutions. Public health students and policy makers need to learn from the past and oppose all forms of racist views and promote social justice as a means of granting better public health.

Keywords: Rinderpest virus (RPV); Infectious diseases; Oral narrative analyses; Epidemics; Public health.

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