JUSTICE MALALA: 5G, Bill Gates and anti-vaxxers: how mad conspiracies set SA up for tragedy
Conspiracy theories about Covid-19, coupled with ill-informed opposition to vaccine research, would be a tragedy for Africa. We must not cave in to those who fear science, argues Justice Malala
We know how the story of all these Covid-9 conspiracy theories will end. We have seen it all before. The story ends with the deaths of mainly poor people while the elites that manufacture these conspiracies and implement their harmful “solutions” escape unscathed.
We saw the impact of conspiracy theories and what happens when governments base their policies on the hocus-pocus produced by the false prophets who make them up here in SA just 15 years ago.
At the time, the overwhelming views of the scientific community around the globe called on the government to roll out antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive citizens. It was an emergency. In 2005, there were about 900 deaths linked to HIV/Aids recorded every day in SA.
Yet, the president of the republic preferred the opinions of a handful of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists who said it was all a ploy to kill Africans.
In the ANC itself, weaned on conspiracy theories such as those penned by the party’s leading intellectual Jabulani “Mzala” Nxumalo in his influential paper “Aids and the Imperialist Connection”, such thinking took hold.
The president’s retinue of praise-singers would not hear a word against his conspiracy-fuelled rantings and resistance to implementing science-led policies. Activists such as Peter Mokaba were roped in to write Aids denialist tracts full of denunciations of the evil West.
Those years of dithering, of embracing conspiracy theories, had their consequences. In 2008 a Harvard University study said 330,000 people died unnecessarily because the science-based policies which could have been implemented to protect them from the virus were simply not there. Or put simply: president Thabo Mbeki’s government was directly responsible for the avoidable deaths, according to the researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic tracing its vicious path around the globe, we find ourselves with wild conspiracies about the coronavirus, its genesis and a possible vaccine for it spreading through social and some traditional media like a deadly and aggressive virus.
There are many of these theories. Almost all are easy to double-check, debunk and dismiss.
For example, in the UK, there is an obsession that the rollout of faster 5G internet is either causing or accelerating the spread of the coronavirus.
This conspiracy is so rampant that a reporter in SA asked health minister Zweli Mkhize to answer to its veracity. Believers in this bogus theory have launched arson attacks on 5G masts despite the fact that the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection and others say the frequencies at which 5G will be deployed will be safe. Even more telling is that Covid-19 has run rampant in countries without 5G, such as Iran.
That, however, is unlikely to deter the conspiracy theory brigade. Facts are beyond them.
What should be of great concern for us in Africa is the swirl of sentiment against vaccines that has accompanied these conspiracy theories. This was demonstrated by the huge volume of invective directed at Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates this past weekend.
Even more astonishing was the alacrity with which many of our political elites lined up behind the conspiracy theory that he not only invented the coronavirus, but wants to control the world by creating a vaccine for it.
Forget the fact that back in 2015, Gates warned against the world’s unpreparedness for a viral pandemic and urged world leaders to scale up preparedness. Forget Gates’s sterling work for more than a decade on health and education in Africa.
None of that stopped the conspiracy brigade. Medium, a media platform that was set up to “identify, expose, and explain disinformation”, notes that Gates reached the third spot on SA’s Twitter trends on March 31, with over 35,000 tweets mentioning his name.
“An overwhelming number of the accounts that tweeted his name claimed Africa should not accept a vaccination for Covid-19 from Bill Gates, even though no vaccination is currently available,” it says.
This past weekend the same invective against Gates rose up, clearly fuelled by the remarks of a French doctor who suggested a possible treatment for Covid-19 should be tested in Africa and following an erroneous News24 headline on an article that said Gates was assisting with testing and research — not vaccines against the coronavirus.
It was fake outrage: Nothing about a vaccine was in the interviews with Gates or anywhere in the source material.
The tragedy is that countries of the global north can possibly afford social distancing, while for us here, what is urgently needed is a vaccine that would slow down and perhaps eradicate the virus.
Vaccines have worked for us. Virtually all adult South Africans have taken about 16 vaccinations protecting them against polio, measles, the rotavirus (which causes diarrhoea in children), pneumonia, meningitis and other diseases.
Many of those tweeting against the idea of a vaccine, or the testing of it in SA and on the continent, would be dead today were it not for the vaccines that our government makes freely available at virtually all our clinics.
What is even more incredible is that SA may be spared the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic because of this country’s vaccination regime, which provides most of those born after 1973 with the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine that protects against respiratory diseases, according to scientists at the New York Institute of Technology.
The most heartbreaking feature of it all is that, because a racist doctor suggested that treatment of the coronavirus should be undertaken in Africa, there is now a voluble (albeit not very powerful movement) against vaccine and treatment tests on the continent.
This is a tragedy for science and the people who benefit from it.
During the Aids pandemic many in SA volunteered for pioneering HIV research. At the moment the BCG vaccine is being tested on 4,000 health-care workers in Australia to see if it will protect them.
Vaccine trials, and other medical trials, are the lifeblood of science. This week Dr Jenniffer Mabuka-Maroa wrote in The Conversation that “Africa’s virtual absence from the clinical trials map is a big problem because, for example, Covid-19 studies may not be relevant for people in African countries unless conducted locally. This is because responses to drugs or vaccines are complicated and can be influenced by, among other things, human genetics: different people will respond differently to different drugs and vaccines. More countries on the African continent must urgently get involved in clinical trials so that the data collected will accurately represent the continent at a genetic level.”
That is how science works. That is how humanity slowly but surely propels itself forward.
It would be a tragedy for Africa and the world if these conspiracy theories scuppered the continent’s participation in finding a vaccine or a cure for Covid-19 or any other medical challenge we face today and in the future.
We cannot withdraw now. People will die. We have seen how this story ends. It’s not pretty.