Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

It’s fitting that in a mad week of an insane year, we had US President Donald Trump speaking of the Covid-19 vaccine as “the gold standard in safety” even as Mogoeng Mogoeng, the face of SA’s widely respected judiciary, floated hocus-pocus conspiracies about the vaccine being “of the devil”.

Mogoeng’s judicial colleagues, who held the line against the government’s capricious lockdown rules this year, will surely be cringing that this is the man who remains their putative figurehead as chief justice.

Rather famously, speaking at Tembisa Hospital on Thursday, Mogoeng said: “If there be any vaccine that is the work of the devil, meant to infuse 666 in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA … may it be destroyed by fire.”

A day later, under fire from doctors, he said he wouldn’t recant his views.

“If there is a vaccine with 666, I want God to destroy it. If there is any vaccine meant to corrupt the DNA of people, I’m asking God to interrupt it. Any clean vaccine, they must produce it quickly,” he said on Friday.

Perhaps the best that can be said of his “clarification” is that he prefaced it by admitting he knows absolutely squat about the subject.

But that still doesn’t absolve him. Mogoeng occupies such an important position, as the head of the judicial branch of the state, that his words — and his conspiracy statements — carry immense weight.

This is why Dr Aslam Dasoo, supported by a slew of top Covid-19 scientists, wrote in City Press yesterday that Mogoeng’s statements were such a dangerous outright “abuse” of his office that he “should be impeached and shown the door now”.

He said: “This is unconscionable, and the action of an ignorant fear monger leading his followers into danger.”

Dasoo’s statement was supported by professors Shabir Madhi, Glenda Gray, Alex van den Heever, Ames Dhai and James McIntyre.

Now, there is understandable hesitancy about a Covid-19 vaccine, since it was developed with unprecedented haste. But studies of more than 30,000 people have concluded it is safe, as The Lancet reports here, and the BBC reports here. None of the studies, as it happens, found the “mark of the beast” in patients.

While Dasoo agreed that vaccination is voluntary, he said this right “is at its limit when [someone’s] failure to be vaccinated prevents herd immunity from developing, thereby perpetuating transmission and exposing others to harm”.

In his own defence on Friday, Mogoeng argued a technical point: I never said the vaccine was imbued with the devil; I only said if it was.

That’s a disingenuous claim. The chief justice surely knows many people won’t hear this qualifier, and instead view what he said as confirmation of their room-temperature IQ beliefs.

Mogoeng also argued that he has freedom of speech to say what he did. But he above all people knows this right doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

As Stephen Grootes cogently argues in the Daily Maverick, Mogoeng himself ruled in the Robert McBride defamation case: “Freedom of expression is a right to be exercised with due deference to, among others, the pursuit of national unity and reconciliation.”

The way Mogoeng framed his vaccine scaremongering didn’t just endanger unity; as Dasoo sees it, it was nothing less than “an incitement to harm”.

Grootes agrees. He makes the point that at a time when there are thousands of new Covid-19 cases every day, and as the spectre of another economically crippling lockdown looms, “the chief justice is questioning the one thing that could save us: a safe and effective vaccine”.

Nobody disputes that Mogoeng has freedom of speech; it’s his appalling judgment and base-level scientific ignorance that has put him in the firing line.

The Bill Gates bogeyman …

Quite clearly, there wouldn’t be any problem if Mogoeng was right.

But sadly, any claim that vaccines are “satanic” and imbued with the “mark of the beast” are simply wrong. Not a single credible scientist would describe this as anything other than irretrievably loony-tunes.

So where did the notion come from?

The idea originated among conspiracy theorists and stems from the (bunkum) idea that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use Covid-19 as a pretext for mandatory vaccinations, which would implant a microchip to “track” people.

This chip, they claim, is nothing less than the Biblical “mark of the beast”.

As Yahoo News reported: “The pandemic created the perfect environment for apocalyptic Christianity to fuse with antigovernment libertarianism, New Age rejection of mainstream science and medicine, and internet-fuelled gullibility toward baroque conspiracy theories about secret cabals ruling the world through viruses”.

Though it’s a conspiracy fuelled by a section of Evangelicals, all but the most fringe Christian scholars have roundly rejected it.

Matthew Halsted, an associate professor of Biblical studies at Eternity Bible College, says he knows of “no reputable biblical scholar or theologian who would endorse the [view that] the Covid-19 quarantine or a vaccine is related to the ‘mark of the beast’”. (If you’re interested, read his reasoning here.)

Equally, the Christian Medical Fellowship’s Steve Fouch says vaccines should be lauded for eliminating deadly diseases like smallpox.

“People often hear half-truths and little stories that make them scared about vaccines. But the reality is, they’re the biggest lifesaving medical technology, except possibly clean water, that we have ever developed,” he told Premier Christian News last week.

This 666 conspiracy is, in fact, such self-evident twaddle that the legions of Covid-19 fact-checkers haven’t even wasted much time on it.

What you can find, though, are fact checks by the BBC, refuting various other dumb-as-a-rock vaccine theories.

Conned into believing the vaccine is made from aborted foetus cells, or that it alters your DNA? Duped into believing Gates is using the vaccine as a pretext to install a microchip?

Then read the BBC fact check right here.

Unoriginal sin

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, this isn’t even an original conspiracy.

Many of the same things were said about the smallpox vaccine in the 1800s: that it was a ploy by doctors to make “profit,” and that it was a satanic ruse that would usher in the “end times”.

For example, the Salisbury Times recorded in 1903 that the vaccine is “the prototype of that modern species of doctorcraft which would have us believe that their highly remunerative invocations of the vaccine god alone avert the utter extermination of the human race by small-pox”.

(Read about that in the Conversation, here.)

The Economist this week described an 18th-century French cartoon, featuring two wicked characters chasing children with a syringe, dragging a green, smallpox-ridden monster behind them.

“People on Facebook today who swap hare-brained theories about Bill Gates wanting to insert tracking chips into everyone are the heirs to 19th-century pamphleteers who suggested people would grow horns if they took a vaccine,” it said.

In the end, however, the smallpox vaccine didn’t usher in the apocalypse. And that vaccine was a far more rustic affair and nauseating ordeal than the slick vaccines we use today.

In 2020, more than a hundred years later, people are a lot more technologically advanced and know far more about science.

Well, not all of us, obviously.​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter.

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