‘South Africa is a fascinating place for a case study on HIV/AIDS’

Clara Rubincam talks about HIV/AIDS in Cape Town and Surrounds

Clara Rubincam is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and her doctoral research focuses on the origins and impacts of conspiracy beliefs about HIV/AIDS in South Africa, specifically Cape Town. Sounds interesting? It is, indeed. We interviewed Clara Rubincam to find out more about her studies.

CTMag: Clara, your topic is “The origins and impacts of conspiracy beliefs about HIV/AIDS in South Africa, specifically Cape Town”. Give us more insights.

Clara: My study focuses on the sorts of explanations for HIV/AIDS that can be called ‘conspiratorial’ – blaming certain groups for the deliberate invention or spread of the disease – and examines the impacts these beliefs can have on HIV prevention and treatment behavior, such as condom use and HIV testing.

CTMag: What is your background and why are you interested in HIV/AIDS in South Africa?

Clara: I’m originally from Canada and I’m studying at the London School of Economics in the UK. Before beginning my PhD, I worked for the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division in Durban for several years and came to appreciate how complex the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is in this country. South Africa is a fascinating place for this case study; it’s a country where real conspiracies are a part of recent memory – I’m thinking here about the revelations coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for instance – and it is also the country where the largest absolute numbers of people with HIV/AIDS live.

The controversies surrounding former President Mbeki’s statements about HIV/AIDS also make this a unique place to study distrust of scientific orthodoxy. In a broader sense, this study examines the reasons why people might not trust certain information about health and disease and tries to uncover how trust could be reestablished. In my opinion it’s crucial to consider the reasons why people might not be participating in HIV prevention and treatment programmes. Often this discussion is dominated by concerns about numbers – having enough hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses.  But sometimes the obstacles to reaching everyone in need can lie with suspicion, distrust and stigma.

CTMag: What are the myths about HIV/AIDS?

Clara: As opposed to talking about ‘myths’ and ‘truths’ I think it’s more instructive to think about where there is still confusion about HIV/AIDS. Many of the people I interviewed didn’t necessarily believe that AIDS was deliberately created by other people but they did question how HIV originally spread from animals to humans. Or they wondered how it was possible for so many more people to be infected in South Africa than in other places. The lack of clarity on these topics still causes uncertainty and distrust.

CTMag: What impact do these beliefs have on the South Africans?

Clara: Though I haven’t finished analyzing my data, to date, my study suggests that people who endorse conspiratorial beliefs about HIV/AIDS (for instance, that HIV is a man-made virus) are less likely to use condoms, and less likely to have had a HIV test in their lifetime. This suggests that there is some link between distrusting the scientific findings of the past 30 years about HIV/AIDS and engaging with certain public health initiatives, such as HIV testing, that are seen as crucial for HIV prevention and treatment.

CTMag: Any differences in Cape Town in comparison to the rest of the country regarding HIV/AIDS?

Clara: Cape Town is unique in many ways – overall prevalence is far lower in the Western Cape than in some other provinces, particularly Mpumulanga and KwaZulu-Natal. There have also been several remarkable civil society initiatives in Cape Town, such as the MSF clinic in Khayelitsha, which distinguishes the experience of people infected with HIV/AIDS from other regions. However, I can’t comment on the prevalence of conspiratorial beliefs in other regions, as my study is focused exclusively on the Cape Town Metropolitan Area.

by Antonia Heil


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