“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