Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Heartbreak of Denial

There was a heartbreaking story in today's NY Times today. A study has established that because of a government policy, hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly.

A new study by Harvard researchers estimates that the South African government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people earlier this decade if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies.

The Harvard study concluded that the policies grew out of President Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the well-established scientific consensus about the viral cause of AIDS and the essential role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it.

How could this happen? And why did it? Thabo Mbeki is no fool. He was a well-respected leader at a time when South Africa needed him. What happened? Well, he succumbed to ideology over science, as the article makes clear.

Mr. Ramatlhodi [a senior ANC party member now running the party’s 2009 election campaign] himself acknowledged in a recent interview that in 2001 he sent a 22-page letter, drafted by Mr. Mbeki’s office, to another of Mr. Mbeki’s most credible critics, Prof. Malegapuru Makgoba, an immunologist who was one of South Africa’s leading scientists. The letter accused Professor Makgoba of defending Western science and its racist ideas about Africans at the expense of Mr. Mbeki. [Emphasis added]

Mr. Mbeki fell for the science deniers' allegations that it was all a nasty Western plot to portray black South Africans as sex-crazed like all primitive blacks are. HIV didn't cause AIDS, and besides, beet juice would take care of everything.

Generations of South Africans are dead as a result, including babies who were born with and then died of the virus when retroviral medication would have prevented the deadly outcome.

Sadly, this is only the latest tragedy of science denial. I did a search of just this blog and found that I had posted on some similar situations in which ideology trumped science with disastrous effects. I indicated in that post, it's not just 'underdeveloped' nations who fall prey to such easy thinking. As I noted three years ago, the link between HPV and cervical cancer is undeniable, and yet fundagelicals in this country are still fighting against the administration of the vaccine to pre-teen girls who aren't yet sexually active for fear that the kids will see this as a license to fuck:

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

But there is something worse than ideology trumping science, as hard as that might be to imagine at first. Sometimes short-term economic considerations have the same effect. A recent vice presidential nominee suggested that she is still not convinced that there is a link between human activity and global warming. Now, this is a slight improvement: it's only been the last nine months or so that some people in this country have acknowledged the reality of global climate change.

However, in the last eight years the current administration and its financial owners have done everything possible to thwart any meaningful American involvement in the problem and, more importantly, in the solution. To so engage the country might result in shrinking bottome lines for oil companies and their lackeys. Alaska might not get its natural gas pipeline. Coal mine owners might not get their government dole for the next "clean coal" advertisement.

It will take more than a new president with a new vision to turn things around for this country and for this planet. It will take a commitment by the entire world, including those who are uncomfortable with the role science must play. If we cannot make that commitment, then we truly are doomed. Each day the problem is not addressed more species disappear, more complications arise, and more chances for reveral dissipate. The human world, at the very least, will end.

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope we do have a new president with a new vision, Diane.

For all the talk I've seen of the brilliance of hiring (or keeping) the likes of Gates (not Bill) as a way of kneecapping the right wing, another explanation is simpler and equally plausible.

We shall see.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's happening in the US on just as large, if not larger, scale. It's just effected somewhat differently. IN today's NYT, Robert Pear illustrates it with his story on the Bush rule to allow states to limit Medicaid coverage. The cost savings - that unholy grail of the free market god - will come from the poor being unable to access care, but because they aren't "denied" care, that translates into preventable harm and preventable deaths entirely invisible to the bean counter bottom line, but instead translating into a business bottom line success.

Invisible killing fields is what that is - and it's done in your name.

As I said, I gave up yesterday - no more blogging from me. In fact, I just took a look at the blog's stats before walking away from it, and there were only a few readers from every country BUT the US.

I am just the homeless, jobless, whistle-blowing, starving bum who was a nurse - so in your eyes, absolutely illegitimate and unworthy.

A wi-fi hotspot today to help me use up the interminable empty time devoid of humanity - that's my world, real and virtual, but no one who wants to be near me.

Thanksgiving? You are kidding yourselves.

6:03 AM  

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