My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
TM: From what I read which is what the scientists are saying, you have here an acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Now a syndrome is a collection of diseases whose causes are known. You can’t say one virus causes a syndrome.
TS: No, but you can say what is the common factor, what do they all have?
TM: You can say, which is what I have said is that you have a virus which causes immune deficiency. But immune deficiency is also caused by other things.
TS: These comments have caused dismay Mr President.
TM: But they are correct…
TS: Even among some of your own workers.
TM: But they are correct…
TS: In your own health ministry people have questioned…
TM: I know.
TS: AIDS workers in Soweto have said you have damaged the campaign; you’ve muddied the waters…
TM: I think that’s a load of nonsense.
TS: Even the head of your Trade Union movement says, you know, that this can undermine the message that all South Africans must take precautions to avoid infection.
TM: Nonsense, absolute nonsense…
TS: Why are they saying this then?
TM: You see it’s the misunderstanding about the science of this question. You see as I was saying immune deficiency is a reality, which is part of your AIDS. And I’m saying that that immune deficiency will be caused by many things. The reason that that becomes important is that as a government we’ve got an obligation to respond to this, and we’ve got to respond in a manner that is comprehensive, got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by a virus, you’ve got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by other things…
TS: You’re the only leader of a major country that is questioning in this way. Why do you think that is?
TM: It’s in the science and I’m saying you cannot say to me that of the South African population seven million people are going to die whenever they’re supposed to die, and then you don’t expect that we look at this matter most carefully, in the greatest detail, to make sure that our responses are correct.
TS: There’s a lot of misinformation, hesitation, seeming to question the scientific basis of what respected scientists, Nobel prize winners, people of the Durban Declaration, 5 000 AIDS workers, doctors have said… I wonder whether you realise, whether you accept that your position has actually damaged the fight against AIDS in this country.
TM: I don’t.
The passage reminds me why President Mbeki has never been my favourite ANC politician and why – when we look back one day – he will be seen as a man with a lot on his conscience. Those who now claim Mbeki never flirted with denialism, are in denial themselves.
When Presdent Mbeki invited Aids dissidents onto the panel of experts to look into the issue of HIV/AIDS, he was flirting with denialism because he was saying that the medical consensus might be wrong. Nobody would have even argued about denialism if, say, the President had invited a panel of experts to determine whether the Holocaust ever happened and included in this panel some Holocaust denialists.
We all would have known that the President was questioning the conventional wisdom about the nature or existence of the Holocaust. The same surely is true for the link between HIV and AIDS.
And a President who questions the link between HIV and AIDS displays the most irresponsible kind of intellectual pride and arrogance because he wants to be right at any cost – no matter how many people may be confused by his argument and may die as a consequence.
President Mbeki did many good things during his two terms, but on HIV and AIDS he has acted in the most shameful manner. Anybody who denies this, must be asked: Who are you going to believe? Ronald Suresh Roberts or your very own eyes.