Tony Barnett

Aids denial costs lives

Three experts in Aids research, Tony Barnett, Gwyn Prins and Alan Whiteside, say that Rian Malan has placed lives in danger with his sceptical approach to the epidemic

The figures are unremittingly stark. Last year alone 2.2 million people died from Aids in sub-Saharan Africa. Twenty-five million people are infected with Aids in Africa. It is not like the Black Death. It is worse.

Yet for whatever reason not everyone accepts the seriousness of the Aids epidemic. The South African writer Rian Malan is one of those sceptics. Scion of a famous Afrikaner family, Malan is the author of My Traitor’s Heart, the tortured and much admired 1990 homily on the white man’s relationship with Africa. In The Spectator last Christmas he argued that the Aids epidemic was far less serious than the experts suggest. The story carried the headline ‘Africa isn’t dying of Aids’.

Malan likes to shock. He said so in an interview in the Afrikaans magazine, Insig: ‘I get a kick out of it when the Treatment Action Campaign attacks me; it’s like sport.’ In The Spectator Malan advanced two linked arguments, one purportedly substantive, the other overdeterminedly interpretative. The first stated that while Aids is a serious issue for Africa, the size of the problem and its long-term effects on society and the economy had been exaggerated; the second suggested that this was done knowingly to provide employment for those working in this field. Malan attracted much attention, and his views continue to exercise a malign influence in South Africa.

President Mbeki quoted Malan approvingly at length in Parliament on 6 February. Two days later he appropriated Malan’s putative erosion of the Aids statistics in a TV interview. Malan had thus provided Mbeki with new reasons not to take the data at face value, new reasons for continuing prevarication. The result: however unintentionally, Malan’s words have contributed to otherwise avoidable death and suffering.

The very weekend that Mbeki was publicly embracing Malan’s opinions, the Nobel Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs invited Malan to a seminar near Cape Town to discuss his evidence.

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