University of KwaZulu-Natal
Private and Public Pandemics in South Africa: Theological Imperatives Summoned by HIV and Covid-19
The first case of HIV was documented in South Africa in 1985 when a gay man who had lived in the USA, tested positive, resulting in HIV initially being seen as a “gay disease.” By 2005, over 5 million South Africans were infected with HIV through heterosexual transmission. Despite wide transmission in particular communities, the public health approach to the pandemic was, and still is, based on “exceptionalism” arising from an individual human rights approach that had been adopted by the gay community in the USA. To this day, the HIV pandemic remains private with the onus on the individual to choose to be tested (with the exception of pregnant women attending public health clinics) and choose whether or not to disclose their HIV positive status. This public health approach has led to a pandemic of stigma and discrimination and further death as people fear disclosure. This stigmatisation was further fuelled by the presidency of Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) who was an AIDS denialist claiming that HIV did not cause AIDS. It is estimated that his refusal to roll-out anti-retroviral treatment during this period led to the death of over 330,000 South Africans.
The first case of Covid-19 was documented on 5 March 2020. The public health approach has been vastly different as the Department of Health has followed the advice of the World Health Organisation and South African scientists in declaring Covid a public health emergency. The pandemic is public in every way with the South African state declaring a national disaster and implementing legal regulations that its citizens are obliged to follow or face criminal prosecution.
In each of these pandemics, theologians have scrambled to respond to the ethical challenges that have emerged. In the first instance, church leaders became complicit in the stigmatising those who were HIV positive using theological resources that led to death. Prophetic theological challenges had to emerge, resulting in new theological trajectories that are still evident but remain tenuous within religious life. The COVID pandemic has summoned forth new theological challenges that are emerging daily. But these, unlike in the private HIV pandemic, occupy a public space. It remains to be seen whether in the next months and years the theological voice can appropriate this space, respond prophetically, and make a contribution to the crisis in such a way that saves lives rather than harnesses forces of death.