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Thabo Mbeki, Big Pharma and the Lessons of the Past

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Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan. During the 1990s, he was Chair in Philosophy at the then University of Natal, Durban. A frequent commentator on South Africa, he splits his time between Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cape Town. His most recent book is The Political Power of Visual Art.

The poor in Africa have been consigned to invisibility. But with global consequence. For it is now well known that global indifference (those people are far away in rural areas and have little effect on us) is a fantasy of cauterisation. As if what happens in nowhere land stays there.

I am writing from my sick bed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as my friend Max Price did earlier from Cape TownPerhaps the ill write from their sick beds because we have nothing else to do. Perhaps because fever sharpens the mind. I am not sure.

I probably picked up the virus somewhere between Rondebosch and Ann Arbor when I returned to the United States 10 days ago. Perhaps in Atlanta where in the airport lounge many people were truculently mask-less, with empty cups of coffee in front of them to “justify” it.

South Africa is my beloved, adopted country, although I was born in Massachusetts and work in the United States. This double life I live between the Global North and South is thrilling, but at this moment painfully acute. For I have the sense that the collective fault for this pandemic, now mutated in variants that neutralised many vaccines on which most of the world relies, cannot be located in a single part of the world, but only in the light of an entire world economic and political system out of whack. 

When SARS first hit Hong Kong in 2003 it should already have been clear that it was only a matter of time before a more infectious variant would emerge. And yet few from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the governments of the developed world, or Big Pharma, even entertained taking steps necessary to prepare for this eventuality through the preparation of vaccines and other instruments. 

The development of the vaccines that are undoubtedly saving my life at this very moment (given my blood cancer) is nothing short of miraculous. These vaccines reflect the hard, imaginative work of excellent scientists, working in a robust institutional system of production that is crucial to facilitating their work. 

But the amazing speed at which these systems have arrived at vaccines and pills is also in sharp contrast to what was not done in the past by way of preparation for the future. And for decades the Global North has paid insufficient attention to the rampant disease tearing through the populations of Southern Africa, from untreated HIV/Aids to tuberculosis and malnutrition. 

The poor in Africa have been consigned to invisibility. But with global consequence. For it is now well known that global indifference (those people are far away in rural areas and have little effect on us) is a fantasy of cauterisation. As if what happens in nowhere land stays there.

Science has shown that those who suffer the indignity of untreated HIV/Aids or related tuberculosis, and malnutrition are living petri dishes for viral mutation. Hence the omicron variant. This is everybody’s problem. From Johannesburg to the CDC in Atlanta (where masks are indeed worn). 

This is what was right about then president Thabo Mbeki’s postcolonial analysis of African disease as indelibly linked to the history of colonialism. 

But in case history has forgotten, there is another half to this story in which Thabo Mbeki does not come out well. If one asks why so many are living in southern Africa with untreated HIV/Aids today, the answer has to devolve in significant part to Mbeki again, this time horrendously. Were his HIV/Aids denialist policies of 1998-2002 not in place during the tenure of his presidency, there would likely have been no equivalent explosion of Aids and likely far fewer suffering human petri dishes (that is, ill human beings) out there to allow for viral mutation. He too carries blame. And those in the African National Congress who supported him. 

What this means is that when it comes to defending the fundamental rights of the South African Constitution – in this instance the right to health – colonial and postcolonial thinking are jointly to blame for the failure. There can be no place for postcolonial, decolonising pieties and power posturing any more than there can be a place for neo-liberal greed and First World indifference across the Atlantic in my home country when it comes to the right to life, sorely tested by a pandemic that, by affecting one person, quickly affects us all. 

Those who cannot learn from the past, the philosopher George Santayana wrote, are condemned to repeat it. And how many times before time runs out? DM/MC

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