Saturday January 27, 2007
I’m not a complicated man – as my girlfriend could happily tell you – but I do get a bit worried about these stories I’ve been emailed, where African people say something stupid about the science of Aids and we all laugh at them. To be fair, the facts don’t make it easy for me to be this sanctimonious. The Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, has just this week disclosed that he can personally cure HIV, Aids and asthma, using charisma, magic and charms. “The cure is a day’s treatment” he says: “asthma, five minutes”. HIV and Aids cases can be treated on Thursdays, and within three days the person should be tested again. “I can tell you that he/she will be negative.”
Gambian bloggers have described the president – the president! – marching triumphantly into hospitals and leaving patients vomiting and in agony. It’s hard to tell what the treatments involve, but Jammeh explains his patients are not allowed to eat seafood or peppers, and “they should be kept at a place that has adequate toilets facilities, because they can be going to toilet every five minutes.” The official news source meanwhile – in a country where journalists have been imprisoned and shot dead in unexplained circumstances – reported that the president’s curative power left doctors and nurses “mesmerised and stunned“.
Medicine deals in biblical themes like life and death, tragedy, and pain, and so naturally it’s a magnet for superstitious beliefs. But – torturing despot though he may be – I’m not sure the president is alone in this fruitcakery.
We actively export our superstition: there’s the white European nutritionist Matthias Rath from last week, out there in South Africa, selling his ridiculous vitamin pills with the message that they are better than antiretroviral medications, with a sturdy influence over Thabo Mbeki.
And people are still dying of polio, simply because of a deluded anti-vaccination movement causing havoc and death in northern Nigeria; its anti-vaccination propaganda would sound eerily familiar to your ears, because it gleans moral and intellectual inspiration, unfortunately, from its cosier cousins bravely campaigning against MMR in Hampstead.
Jammeh & Bush
We have superstition in our own despotic leaders, of course. Over here it just makes them discriminate against gay people, but in America everything’s bigger. Like Pepfar, the grandiosely named Presidential Emergency Plan For Aids Relief: among its many bizarre manoeuvres, Christian moral superstition made Pepfar demand that every recipient of aid money sign a declaration, promising not to touch sex workers.
This may be insensitive to the Christian value system, but to me, sex workers and Aids policy do go very naturally together. Because science, viruses, microscopes and drugs are one thing, but if you secure the legal rights of sex workers to be free from violence and discrimination, you empower them to demand universal condom use, and that way, you stop HIV being spread into the whole community).
But of course these superstitious Christians don’t like condoms either; or needle exchanges, because their moral principle of abstinence is more important than saving lives.
And then there are the widespread financial superstitions. I hate to break it to the shareholders out there, but it’s pretty obvious to us non-believers that people in Africa have never bought – and will never buy – your new patented Aids drugs: you know, the ones with better side effects. But they hold on to the dream, they can’t step outside the frame and give them away, in the developing world, off-patent.
Last year 2.8 million people died of Aids, and 40 million are HIV positive. This is an illness that laughs at our superstitions, it laughs at our politics, it dwarfs our wars, it laughs at our quackery, our love of money, and it shows up our morality as nothing more than vanity. In no sense does the president of the Gambia stand out of this picture as being particularly weird.
Â· Ben Goldacre won the Royal Statistical Society’s inaugural award for statistical excellence in journalism last week.
Holy crap, the Gambian Observer is reporting that he’s been successful!
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