In January 2007, Yahya Jammeh, president of The Gambia, announced that he had a cure for Aids.
The treatment required confinement, herbal concoctions and for the patient to cease anti-retroviral drugs. Somewhat bizarrely, it only worked on Thursdays and Mondays.
Despite the treatment’s apparent slothfulness on other days of the week, Mr Jammeh promised that the patient would be cured within “three to 30 days”. And he declared, “Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure Aids, and I will”.
Ten years later, Mr Jammeh was forced out of office and sent into exile in Equatorial Guinea, after being defeated in the December 2016 elections. One might have thought that his departure would put an end to the whole fantastic saga of the former military officer’s claims to have invented a remarkable medical cure. But it didn’t. In 2018, some survivors of Mr Jammeh’s bogus Aids cure sued the former president, claiming damages for harm they suffered while being treated.
Sarah Bosha, a research and policy associate at the New York-headquartered advocacy group Aids-Free World, said Mr Jammeh’s behaviour had been villainous. “There is no cure for Aids,” she noted. “When an individual of great power claimed otherwise, human health was jeopardised, lives were cut short, and a deadly epidemic was prolonged – all in the service of the insatiable ego of Yahya Jammeh, one of the great villains of modern times”.
Ms Bosha and several others conducted a research project on the “true impact” of Mr Jammeh’s treatment. In June 2019, they wrote an article in Health and Human Rights Journal, detailing the findings.
It pointed out that “Jammeh has no medical training, holds only a high school diploma” and managed to “create and preside over a health dictatorship” in a political system that punished criticism of the president.
A policy implementer in The Gambia told the researchers: “After [a senior UN official critical of Mr Jammeh’s Aids cure] was expelled, people from other organizations kept their mouths shut…They do not want to anger the president and be [exiled], or arrested, or even go missing. You know, because at the time of Jammeh, these things happened constantly. You say something bad about him, and you are done”.
The article also noted that “Jammeh is not the first head of state to use his power and position to shape access to care and the management of HIV and AIDS, nor will he be the last”.
But it’s not just Aids. Donald Trump has championed hydroxychloroquine, bleach and ultraviolet light as a cure for coronavirus in a dangerous and blatantly egotistical exercise of presidential power. There has been at least one reported death (in Arizona) as a result of Mr Trump’s hydroxychloroquine prescription.
Mr Trump has also gagged US government scientists. Recently, the White House airily explained away the warning issued by Dr Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control, of a second — and worse — round of coronavirus infections in winter. The implied threat was obvious. If the doctor persists, he will receive the treatment he deserves – a Twitter blast perhaps from the president and being sacked.
There are many parallels between the US president and the former president of The Gambia: No medical training; an enormous ego; a tendency to punish critics, deep ignorance and a callousness about others’ wellbeing.
Yahya Jammeh and Donald Trump might almost be soulmates.