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Covid-19: Denialism, Brand of the Cultural Imperialist


The World Peace Foundation should be more circumspect when criticizing a country for its approach to Covid-19. The word ‘denialism’ has a distinctly pejorative use in the selectively diplomatic world of international health. Those using the word see themselves as right, empirically and morally, upholders of the orthodoxy, unassailable. 

The title ‘Tanzania’s Layered Covid Denialism’ is more inciteful than insightful, and calculatedly so. Clearly, the author does not believe there is more than one valid view. If you are not with the orthodoxy, you are against it, an authoritarian, intent on imposing your will on those you lead. 

On the basis of a handful of headline-grabbing titbits, several from Twitter, the author claims that “access to information about Covid-19 has become an elite privilege”.

Let me give you a real example of elite privilege: 

“Use of improperly sterilized syringes and other medical equipment in health-care settings can also result in HIV transmission. We in the UN system are unlikely to become infected this way since the UN-system medical services…use only new or sterilized equipment. Extra precautions should be taken, however, when on travel away from UN approved medical facilities, as the UN cannot ensure the safety of blood supplies or injection equipment obtained elsewhere;…avoid direct exposure to another person’s blood — to avoid not only HIV but also hepatitis and other bloodborne infections.” 

Note, the UN believes that their personnel risk bloodborne infections from healthcare facilities available to the public in Tanzania or South Africa. But they insist that those same facilities are safe for people living in those countries, because they claim that almost all HIV transmission is a result of unsafe sex and only a tiny fraction results from unsafe healthcare. 

For all his faults, Thabo Mbeki questioned the view that ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior could explain massive HIV epidemics in a few African countries, but nowhere else. He questioned that old western prejudice about ‘African’ sexual behavior, employed throughout history to justify numerous and lengthy lapses in ethical research and healthcare. 

Sadly, Mbeki was pushed into rejecting the far better supported view that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV. What he should have rejected was the view that HIV is almost always transmitted via heterosexual sex, because outside Africa, it isn’t. 

Mbeki was punished, branded a ‘denialist’, because he didn’t agree with the orthodox view, and said so. The international health community knows that HIV is not commonly transmitted via heterosexual behavior outside of a few African countries. They should have admitted that this serious anomaly tarnishes the entire orthodoxy. 

President Magufuli of Tanzania is certainly not in the same position as Mbeki, because Covid-19 is expected to kill relatively few people, especially compared to numerous pathogens that cause extremely high morbidity and mortality rates in African countries. 

With the economies of Tanzania’s partners under threat, and the strength of the global economy at stake, Magufuli imposed a less stringent lockdown than most other countries. Thankfully, outbreaks of violence, civil unrest, food insecurity and economic collapse seen in countries with similar economies to Tanzania’s were averted. 

Labelling someone a ‘denialist’, whether it’s about HIV or Covid-19, is an unmistakable piece of cultural imperialism. Magufuli’s initial response was entirely reasonable and sensible, more so than those of Kenya, South Africa and many other countries. Since you can’t shame the country into copying an almost global failure to address the virus, maybe you can learn from them?

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