Tainted Commons, Public Health: The Politico–Moral Significance of Cholera in Vietnam


In October 2007, a series of cholera epidemics broke out in Hanoi, interrupting a moment of economic triumphalism in post-transition Vietnam. In seeking the source of a refractory disease associated with poverty and underdevelopment, officials, media, and citizens not only identified scapegoats and proposed solutions, they also endorsed particular visions of moral conduct, social order, and public health. Controversy over cholera, a potent politico–moral symbol, expressed an imaginary of “tainted commons” (i.e., an emergent space of civil society and small-scale entrepreneurship from which the state has partially withdrawn, while still exercising some measure of scrutiny and control). The ambiguities of this situation permitted the state to assume moral postures, evade responsibility, and deflect criticism to convenient targets. Prevalent outbreak narratives thus played on anxieties regarding specifically classed and gendered social groups, whose behavior was imagined to contravene ideals of public health and order.