Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem reminds us of an ongoing tragedy

Yesterday was World Aids Day. The previous week and
the rest of this week is being used to focus global
attention on the pandemic and what we all, rulers and
subjects, victims and carers, local, national,
regional and international actors can do to fight the
scourge. Africa, as the continent with the largest
number of infected people is, rightly, getting a lot
of attention. 25 million people  (almost half of the
global total) across this continent are living with
the killer disease which has not even peaked in some
of the worst affected countries like Botswana with
almost 40% infection rate. The gender impact of the
disease, the class burden and demographic distribution
is even more devastating with at least one in Six
children (1/6 of  African children) affected.
Meanwhile the daily death row is mounting.

Whatever one's view of statistics, its uses and
abuses, the stark truth is that our peoples are dying
and dying in great numbers and doomed to die in
greater numbers and we have to  (and can) do
something, something very drastic, to arrest the
situation. There is no point arguing about how the
disease arrived or quarrel with the apocalyptic
scenarios about many African countries. While the
arguments may be useful to historians of science and
medicine and academics they do not address the
problems at hand. Our people are dying.

The sad truth is that the situation is not hopeless,
it is reversible. While there may not be cure there is
enough progress in science research and medicine to
stem the rise, prolong the lives of infected people
and even more information on various preventive
measures. What is making Africa and Africans more
vulnerable than other peoples is a combination of
ignorance and poverty. The situation is not limited to
Africans on the continent. There are alarming reports
about the rapid spread of the disease among Africans
in the diaspora especially African-Americans and in
particular African-American women.

It is not all bad news across Africa. A country like
Uganda has a deserved image globally as a country,
which has shown openness and innovative local and
national leadership in confronting the disease.  But
even Uganda's positive record for many years risks
being undermined by complacency. If you have a winning
formula why change it? This may be contributing to an
atmosphere one concerned HIV/Aids activist described
thus: "One hundred percent HIV/Aids awareness, Zero %
Sex education". People know enough  (and some believe
know too much ) about the disease, take whatever care
they can but in some sections of the population the
law of diminishing returns may be setting in and even
fatalistic attitudes ('this thing will kill all of
us') that may substantively drive the deadly curve up
again.  Thus more concerted efforts need to be
continuously embarked upon to warn people that HIV/ADS
remains real and ‘present real and present danger’  to
the population. Until there is a cure or effective
vaccine everybody is still vulnerable. The fear about
Uganda's continuing success in confronting the disease
center around more creative communication methods with
vulnerable social groups (especially in rural areas,
women and the Youth), prospects for universal access
to cheap (if not free) anti retriovirals and
relentless educational campaigns. There is also an
unnecessary dilution of the message in the secondary
argument imported from neo-con religious right in
America  and other fundamentalists across the world
about ‘abstention’ . The argument is not either or but
effective education on all forms of preventive
measures and Safe Sex including the active but
culturally sensitive promotion of the use of condoms.

Many other African countries are unfortunately in
various stages of denial. While every country now has
one form of national campaign strategy or the other
the full impact of the threat posed by HIV/AIDS is not
generally appreciated therefore the fundamental
lifestyle and behavioral changes needed are not being
addressed systematically.  For instance, in many
countries in the West African region the use of condom
is still resisted for many reasons including
convenience, reactionary cultural attitudes and
general ignorance. I have been concerned, on several
trips to the region in the past three years. Talking
to educated people (who should, theoretically, know
better) many of them in NGOs, academia, media, public
institutions and local elite in their communities I
discover an alarming mountain of ignorant complacency.
Some of them have inverted tired racist arguments
about the origins of AIDS by concluding that as long
as they do not mess around with white partners they
are safe!  Yet I look in the newspapers and see death
notices of many big people and the not so big who died
'after long illness' or 'heart attack' or 'high blood
pressure' or  'pneumonia' or 'malaria' or 'short
illness' or 'hypertension' and my mind race back to
similar coded messages in Uganda many years ago. And I
wonder if all of these deaths are due to the stated
public reasons or could be AIDS-related. IT took many
years for even countries that are Uganda’s neighbours
to come out about HIV/Aids. Kenya for instance thought
admitting HIV/Aids may affect its tourism trade.
Actually, not so long ago a prominent politician who
shall remain nameless died almost certainly of
Aids-related illness. But both the public and high
level political burial could not disclose the reason
even though media speculation went close enough to
suggest this was the case. Even in Uganda public
disclosure about ‘big people’ is not common.  There
are many issues involved including stigma against the
widows left behind , orphaned children and the right
to privacy of affected peoples both living, dying and
the dead.
The first task in confronting the disease is
combating the mass ignorance that still surrounds the
disease and associated social stigma that makes it
extremely difficult for people suffering and living
with the disease to admit it and seek necessary
treatment. This will require both public and community
leadership to raise general awareness that can turn
the disease away from 'death sentence' to 'can live
longer' hope.  The second task is the poverty that
makes poorer and marginalised peoples (especially
Women, Youth and the majority of our peoples in rural
areas) more vulnerable in terms of access to
information and anti retriovirals and prevention
programs. But addressing poverty and access issues
alone will not deal with the problem fully. Even the
relatively rich who have the money or middle classes
who have easier access to the available medicines need
the power that existing knowledge and available
technology can afford them to appreciate that they
need not 'die of ignorance'. HIV/AIDS is real, knows
no social boundaries and threatens all of us but
together we can all do something about it.