Prof Jerry Coovadia was a leader in science and politics

Zackie Achmat said Prof Jerry Coovadia stood up against HIV denialism in South Africa. Picture: File

Zackie Achmat said Prof Jerry Coovadia stood up against HIV denialism in South Africa. Picture: File

Published Oct 4, 2023


By Zackie Achmat

Jerry Coovadia, one of the most decent and kind human beings I have ever met, spent a great life among us.

A paediatrician, academic medicine professor, HIV specialist, and dedicated public health official has died. Commitment to people, science and evidence led him to socialism and the ANC. Together with Dr Zubeida Hamed, a dermatologist who specialised in skin cancers, Jerry, as we all called him, became a leader in science and politics. I met Jerry Coovadia in 1981 when the late Cecyl Esau and I organised the funeral of Hennie Ferus under the leadership of Johnny Issel. Hennie was an underground member of the banned ANC. Together with Liz Abrahams, Rita Ndzanga, Oscar Mpetha, Jan Theron, and others, Jerry spoke under the flag of the ANC at great risk to all of them. He was a leader in the Natal Indian Congress and the ANC, along with countless others.

Politics was my first introduction to this doctor. Little did I know.

I met Jerry Coovadia again as a scientist and professor of paediatric immunology in 2000 in the resistance to HIV denialism and former president Thabo Mbeki’s malicious war against science.

Jerry and two of his great comrades, Quarraisha Abdool Karim and her husband Saleem Abdool Karim, both professors, helped to build and lead a movement of public health officials against HIV denialism locally and internationally. They were pillars of the Treatment Action Campaign.

Jerry’s resistance arose from witnessing the preventable HIV-related deaths and new infections of infants, children, women, and men. Mbeki’s callousness led to millions of new infections, repeated painful illnesses, death, and the destruction of family life.

Never was a doctor so vilified as Jerry Coovadia in the ANC for his implacable and quietly militant stand against Mbeki.

I have deep love for Jerry and Zubeida, one that compels me to remember him and to bring his life into the consciousness of every person I reach who values the right to life, dignity, health, equality, and freedom from hunger, poverty, and inequality.

One can never overuse the poem In Memory of Sigmund Freud by WH Auden when saying goodbye to a friend and comrade who lived a life of reason, conscience, and commitment.

“When there are so many we shall have to mourn,

when grief has been made so public, and exposed

to the critique of a whole epoch

the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die

among us, those who were doing us some good,

who knew it was never enough but

hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished

to think of our life from whose unruliness

so many plausible young futures

with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes

upon that last picture, common to us all,

of problems like relatives gathered

puzzled and jealous about our dying.”

Love and solidarity to Zubie, his wife, children Anushka and Imraan, their families, and extended families, including his cousin Nasima Coovadia.

* Zackie Achmat is a social justice activist and #UniteBehind director.

*The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL