Mbeki and Trump: A tale of two denialist presidents

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Conspiracy theories, disregard for science and grandiosity are hallmarks of how the US president has handled the coronavirus pandemic — and his words are eerily similar to those of Thabo Mbeki on HIV., writes Kerry Cullinan on Daily Maverick.

Cullinan writes:

There once was a president who denied that a virus was causing extensive infections. He silenced eminent scientists and entertained a wide range of conspiracy theories. During his reign, politicking took precedence over scientific facts, blind loyalty was rewarded over scientific excellence and quacks with fake cures were entertained at the highest level. His name was Thabo Mbeki and he became president of South Africa in 1999 – just as HIV was starting to spread exponentially in the country.

Mbeki’s belief in his own intellectual superiority over internationally renowned HIV scientists came at a huge cost. He refused to allow the rollout of antiretroviral drugs because he thought they were “poison”. His decision resulted in the deaths of an estimated 330,000 people and the births of 35,000 HIV-infected babies, according to calculations by Dr Pride Chigwedere of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues.

The report says US President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is eerily similar to Mbeki’s Aids denialism, replete with paranoia, distortion, denial of basic science and grandstanding.

At a rally in North Charleston on 28 February, Trump said COVID-19 was a “new hoax’ by Democrats after they had failed to impeach him. Similarly, Mbeki accused the pharmaceutical industry of creating an Aids bogeyman in order to sell its medicines. On 6 March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the “Chinese Communist Party is providing data sets that aren’t transparent” about the “Wuhan virus”.

The report says like Mbeki, Trump has surrounded himself with people who do not believe in basic scientific facts.

Aside from using the pandemic to take cheap shots at China, Trump has downplayed its spread and impact. He falsely claimed at a press briefing on 26 February that there were only 15 cases in the US, infections were “going very substantially down, not up” and that “the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero”. White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway later reported: “This has been contained.”

The lack of widespread testing, and thus reliable data, did not stop Trump from disputing WHO estimates that Covid-19’s mortality rate was 3.4%, describing this as “a really false number”. “Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this … I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1%.”

Mbeki, too, believed in hoaxes and had plenty of hunches and conversations with charlatans. Before he stopped believing in HIV altogether, Mbeki promoted an untested industrial solvent, Virodene, as an HIV “cure” and invited its manufacturers to address his cabinet.

Despite his unscientific approach, Mbeki projected himself as an expert in scientific matters. In an interview with Time magazine in September 2000, he declared, “The notion that immune deficiency is only acquired from a single virus cannot be sustained.” Trump too fancies himself a scientist. “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it,” he said recently.

But, the report says, the chance of a cure for arrogance and narcissism is much less likely.

Full Daily Maverick report

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