“What prompted me to write this next book was really to think a bit more about what is it about ideas like AIDS denialism and also AIDS conspiracy theories, in general... AIDS denialism is one set of conspiracy theory. It says we actually don’t believe it exists or if it exists, it’s harmless. It’s basically saying all the scientists and all the evidence is wrong. They’re in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps the CIA, evil governments. We can’t trust the whole of science. In that sense it’s a conspiracy theory, which says a small group of people claims to know the truth and the whole of science is wrong”, says the author, Nicoli Natrass.
In the South African context, Natrass says the book is another effort at holding former political leader, Thabo Mbeki and the late Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang accountable for their denialist stance and its resultant effect.
“The book really holds accountable the leaders. It’s again another look at the way in which Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in particular, took bad ideas and put them into the public domain and defended them, particularly the conspiracy theories”, she says.
She writes that conspiracy theories have had drastic consequences for many people.
“They say: ‘Don’t trust the scientists. Don’t trust science. In fact, ignore them’. And, people then don’t take precautions and they don’t take treatment”.
The book makes a point that in South Africa, conspiracy and denialist theories that disputed scientific dogma were hugely propagated by the government. The political denialist agenda created an environment that allowed for quackery and alternative beliefs that promoted scientifically unproven methods of treating AIDS.
“People who promote AIDS conspiracy beliefs or AIDS denialist beliefs are linked into a community which has its own healers. There’s an element, actually, of what I call cultrupreneurs – these alternative healers, these quacks who are linked closely to those people who make a conspiratorial move against science”, Natrass says.
This politically-orchestrated denialism cost the country quite incredibly.
“The delay in providing antiretroviral treatment caused 330 000 deaths. Brazil, for example, introduced antiretroviral treatment in 1996 – the moment it was heralded as a medical break-through. We, by early 1994, did not have one single person on antiretroviral treatment in the public health sector, eight years after Brazil. So, it clearly took very deep root, not necessarily within the society, but certainly the political clout that it was given made it not just a quaint quack harmless thing. It made it a terribly destructive thing and something that we are actually still paying the price of. It wasn’t just about the people who died as a result of not getting treatment. It was about the people who were infected with HIV because we were having silly debates about whether HIV existed”, adds Mark Heywood, Director of Section 27.
Although the political climate has changed, Heywood says denialism is not entirely gone and buried. He says it continues to manifest itself in various forms in the public health sector.
“The Gauteng health service is collapsing. There are no drugs, there are no gauzes, there are no syringes in certain places, people are even fed by Gift of the Givers at certain hospitals”.
But Natrass says the politics of today is fundamentally different in the sense that the fight is not about questioning the validity of science anymore.
“We’re not fighting over the science. The politics is much more political-economic… Are we actually getting resources to the right places? So, we’ve got really good policies on paper. The problem is, of course, Baragwanath running out of supplies… that kind of thing. There’s still a terrible need – and urgent need - for activism”, says Natrass.