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May it please the court – we cannot afford to be distracted by Judge Mogoeng’s bizarre remarks

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Hloni Bookholane, MBChB MPH is a doctor from South Africa and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the author of Becoming a Doctor: Learnings and unlearnings about life and the politics of medicine. Follow him on Twitter @HloniBookholane

With lives at stake and SA facing a second wave of the pandemic, we need to ensure our messaging remains on target. We do not need the Chief Justice of South Africa undermining science through public prayer with remarks about the Antichrist that are devoid of any scientific and medical truth, logic or reason.

“Unless we do things differently, this will be the last Christmas for some,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa during an update to the nation on developments in South Africa’s Covid-19 response on 14 December 2020. This is the public health messaging which we need: clear, concise and compelling.

However, despite efforts being made to improve public health messaging, people in prominent positions spreading misleading information create the fertile soil for scientific conspiracy theorists who seek to sow further distrust in science.

In the present moment, with lives at stake and facing a second wave of the pandemic, we need to ensure our messaging remains on target and focus our efforts to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. We do not need the Chief Justice of South Africa undermining science through public prayer, in a secular state. This behaviour serves to further alarm a populace that already fears Western medicine.

The Solidarity Fund – established to augment the South African government response efforts to the pandemic – announced last week that it would be committing R327 million ($22 million) towards securing the recently released Pfizer mRNA vaccine. Following the announcement, at a thanksgiving service held at a hospital in Johannesburg, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng led a prayer in which he suggested that should there be Antichrist infused in the vaccine it should be destroyed by fire

The problem with this is not that the Chief Justice is an unapologetically pious Christian, but rather his public prayer and remarks therein were devoid of any scientific and medical truth, logic or reason. He has no locus standi to be making scientific pronouncements about the SARS-CoV2 virus, Covid-19 disease, and the recently approved Pfizer mRNA vaccine — especially not in a public forum in his capacity as the Chief Justice. Irrespective of the mens rea of his actions, doing so places the lives of many unwitting South Africans at great risk.

The problem is that his public actions have far-reaching ramifications. To summarily dismiss the critiques he has since received as baseless shows an alarming sense of impunity he is unwilling to give up. The Chief Justice is a legal public figure and thought leader whose allegiance ought to lie with adhering with the Constitution. Anything short of this creates an unnecessary and demanding distraction from more substantive matters.

Our collective attention needs to be on the resurgence of Covid-19, our scientists, healthcare workers, public health officials, epidemiologists, data analysts and infectious diseases experts; not the scientific faux pas of the Chief Justice. We’ve been here before, where a leading South African public figure earned international rebuke with his mindless scientific pronouncements.

In the early 2000s, former President Thabo Mbeki failed to acknowledge both the HIV crisis and the progression of untreated HIV to AIDS, thereby deterring access to life-prolonging and lifesaving antiretroviral therapy. Over 300,000 South Africans died because of his ineptitude, ignorance and impudence.

Like antiretroviral therapy for HIV, the vaccine is the only definitive therapeutic option available for Covid-19. There is nothing else.

Delaying access to this through unsubstantiated claims – in prayer or otherwise – does not help efforts to address the pandemic. Instead of focusing our attention on the logistics of getting South Africans vaccinated, deciding who will be prioritised, and where the money to pay for the vaccines will come from, we are preoccupied with debating a moot point: whether the mark of the Antichrist has been infused in the Covid-19 vaccine.

Mistrust in science and medicine is disquieting and it is going viral. It is dangerous to further anxieties and embolden antivax conspiracy theories: this is the responsibility implicit in freedom of speech.

We need to separate how we feel and our un- or mis-informed opinions from science. As far as is possible, we need to exorcise politicians and the judiciary from the work of science. Going forward, to prevent this avoidable problem; we need to centre the medical and scientific experts when it comes to discussing or hypothesising about the current pandemic and treatment thereof.

Failing that, we will continue putting out irrelevant fires, getting further distracted from the Covid-19 pandemic. DM

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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All Comments 8

  • Hi Hloni, you are certainly misinformed. You should take time and read the holy Bible (Book of Revelations) before you spew your vitriolic opinion.
    There’s nothing wrong with the CJ prayer. You make reference to HIV/AIDS medicine as if the initial doses did not alter the Minds, DNA, Emotions, Souls of the recipients – with most dying. I agree the current doses are much improved and prolong life – still with side effects.
    So when the CJ seeks God’s intervention should there be harmful vaccines (which is a real possibility which no self respecting and ethical scientists can not deny) he is displaying leadership and compassion which is lacking in our current leadership in the country. Furthermore, your vitriolic opinion is encouraging religious intolerance which is dangerous for a country such as ours.
    Lastly, I find it curious that you raise no issue with public figures who openly display their “isiphandla” on whether their beliefs in dead people “izinyanya” clouds their judgment whilst leading the nation.

    • If only there was a cure for this kind of nonsense. Hloni speaks sense and science, you counter with the book of Revelations. Really? Well all I can say is those people who decide their fates on that basis maybe deserve what they get.

    • It beggars belief that the likes of Nyameko Magongo so entirely miss the point that their right to prayer is not the same thing as public pronouncements by unqualified state officials on whether science is valid or otherwise. The CJ has a right to his religion (as does Nyameko) but a secular state demands that their is separation between the authority of the state and the influence of the church on society and public matters. The CJ is a senior appointee in state, required in his position to have a mind of sound judgement. His pronouncements that the obviously superstitious nonsense of books like Revelations are valid facts to be concerned about indicates that he cannot separate the influence that his religious belief has over him from the facts of the real world. Nyameko claims that Hloni’s well considered and rational article is “encouraging religious intolerance” and is a danger. A danger to who one might ask? It is only the intolerance of science and facts, displayed by religious people such as the CJ that has created danger!

  • The book of Revelation is not relevant to virus vaccines, and its a pity that someone as learned and helpful as Justice Moegeng Moegeng has, without any detail upended an apple cart of randomness into a very stressed street. I wish he hadn’t done it. Is there detail? I would like to know what his reason was for injecting (pardon the pun) fear into an already hysterical environment. Hloni, compassion for this doctor who might well be on the front line, might be a more appropriate response? What would your feelings be if someone called your work evil and dangerous, without even justifying what they were saying?

    • I agree with your comment Jennifer. Just to mention that Dr Hloni Bhookolane wrote the article. Nyameko is the person who took umbridge at Hloni’s ‘vitriolic opinion’, one which I find to be grounded in science.

  • I thought MM had lost the plot but I note that others like NM have lost it with him! It never ceases to amaze me that so many people refute scientific medical information and prefer to propose mythological ideas that are totally unscientific instead. Perhaps Magongo could try hurling the Book of Revelations at the corona viruses – he has a better chance of knocking out a few viruses in the process rather than applying the strange beliefs therein to conjure up conspiracy theories about Covid and the hope that a vaccine offers.

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