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A Reply to Harriet A. Washington

Harriet A. Washington, author of Medical Apartheid, has posted a response to my critique of her op-ed in the New York Times two weeks ago.

Washington says that her “point” is to show how a handful of “Western medical miscreants” practicing in Africa are responsible for the skepticism of “poor patients who desperately need and rarely receive quality medical care.” Yet, the lack of “quality medical care” in South Africa, for instance, is largely a feature of the government’s total ineptitude. To choose just the latest example, that country’s courageous deputy health minister was sacked this week for daring to criticize the appallingly high infant mortality rate at a government hospital.

If Washington’s intellectual project is to analyze and explain the widespread African distrust of Western medicine, she should focus on the health policies of South Africa, the continent’s most developed country. Neither Washington nor any observer of the scourge of AIDS in Africa can deny that more than anyone else, it is South African President Thabo Mbeki, with his scientifically illiterate and paranoid rantings, who has fostered the very skepticism of Western medicine about which Washington writes. Mbeki’s policies as president of the country with the highest number of AIDS sufferers—over five million—have been nothing short of murderous.

Apparently, Washington’s selective and misleading explanations are not limited to her Times op-ed. Sally Satel and Howard I. Kushner reviewed Washington’s book in the May issue of COMMENTARY, writing that her “account is marred by frequent distortions and inaccuracies.” Ultimately, Satel and Kushner write, “Sowing still more distrust and alienation, her book stands to widen the very ‘health divide’ that she seeks to repair.” Giving a pass to the ignorant conspiracy theories and pseudo-science of South Africa’s government is just a continuation of this intellectual cynicism.



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