NEW YORK – BY sun down every day the HIV/AIDS epidemic snuffs out 8,213 lives the world over of which 4,927 victims are women from southern and eastern Africa.
Increasingly, the battle against the Aids -causing human immunodeficiency virus is seen less as a battle for financial or medical resources and more as a battle of ideas; and grave and heavy those ideas come.
Unlike tuberculosis and malaria, two insistent infections that kill two and one million defenceless persons every year, AIDS has stunned the social order. From the town hall to the sacred space of the bedroom, AIDS has questioned the core norms of human procreation, the choice of a sexual partner, of sexual debut and sexual fidelity and even lately the definition of who is a parent.
Despite the unease to disentangle the moral challenge of AIDS from its medical condition, the social actors in the grim AIDS drama such as the medical doctor still sees a medical condition, the public health administrator a logistics nightmare and the weathervane political leader, responding to the constituency, a vote bank to either woo or ignore.
There is then one who remains in the battle against AIDS, the propagandist or the public communicator or that ultimate arranger of word and image, the public intellectual, who is yet to author a compelling argument to rouse those unaffected against this socially crippling illness.
Among the many official proclamations leading to World AIDS Day, which is today, December 1, two have strikingly stood out.
"It is only through the strength of our arguments,” said Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, at a meeting in Dakar of 70 experts from Africa and the United Nations, “that we shall overcome Africas debt. We must fight an intellectual battle to that end."
The second statement wrapped up a speech given at the World Bank in Washington D.C. by the distinguished doctor and executive director of the multi-agency task force UN Aids, Peter Piot, who said, “AIDS is one of the great moral causes of our time.”
A cryptic protest can be heard in President Abe’s and Dr. Piot’s utterances, of whether their arguments were registering deep in the minds of their audiences or were they being ignored. My interest, strictly as a propagandist, is how to frame the “intellectual” and the “moral” arguments to spare Africa its anxious condition, and how to attract others to spare a minute and their money to understand the anxiety. Callousness, a heavy word, springs up as the first mental roadblock.
Of the nearly 42 million the world over with AIDS (many alone in their anguish), 30 million victims live in sub- Saharan Africa, of which 2.4 million died last year. Out of 100 adults, for example, between 15 and 24 years in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, Aids infects 25 adults (60 per cent are women) and less than 1 per cent of them can access any medicine at all; and in these four countries, according to UNICEF, one in 10 children between 10 and 14 years will lose a mother or a father in the next six years, piling up to a total 11 million orphans in Africa.
The anxiety over Africa generated in these official facts is rooted, I believe, in the received wisdom about the bush. The bush flounders, despite advances with man in space, at the edge of civilization. Despite 8,213 funerals every day in Africa, AIDS is disorganization in a distant society, afflicting people whose morals are black.
Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, was put a question in his office last week. How would the world react had Europe and North America seen as many Aids deaths as in Africa. He replied: “The population would have demanded action, the politicians would act to tell the mothers, the brothers and the sisters that we are fighting your fight, we are saving your children and yes, and vote for me.”
In sub-Saharan Africa the co-struggle against AIDS is the struggle against abuse of power. “During the cold war,” a Zambian army general told me, “There was one UN peacekeeping mission to Africa and after the cold war, more than fifteen. During the cold war, the Western or Eastern powers ensured stability in certain countries for their interests to be served. But at the end of the cold war, once their interests had been served and there was nothing else to do, they left. You find those dictators who relied on these powers were left to themselves.”
The propagandist, whose brief it is to keep public memory long, has an enduring fight with short memories and e-spin practiced by today’s organized powers. It’s a battle of ideas lest promises flicker; and colonial memories fade. The political borders that divided communities in Africa were engraved by the economic exigencies behind The General Act of February 26, 1885 at Berlin, which “allocated” African “spheres of influence”. The propagandist against AIDS has therefore to learn also from the historian, the anthropologist and the muckraker.
Four days prior to World AIDS Day, a debate on the rights of the child stalled in U.N. chambers. Though not directly related to AIDS, the arguments serve as an echo of related concerns the propagandist must be aware of. Benin had introduced a resolution titled “Importance of the role of parents in the care, development and well-being of their children.” A day later, New Zealand proposed an amendment to the title: “Importance of the role of parents, legal guardian and other caregivers…”
A bemused Arab League diplomat, allied with the Beninese, explained the deadlock: “What is this we asked? Is it that difficult to define who parents are?
“They want to include man-man, woman-woman as parents!” said Bakri, the Arab League diplomat, adding, “The Muslim follows polygamy within tradition but does not approve multiple partners. Then they tell us ‘you don’t approve condoms.’ Yes, I am not with many partners, I am with my wives. Why condom?” If AIDS is indeed a great moral cause for humankind, the propagandist better be wise to take note of situational inconsistencies.
Within this episode lie the encircling themes of virtue and morality, of stigma and discrimination of people, especially of the woman with AIDS and her shadow on the social conscience.
Could the propagandist, in his battle against HIV, remind the sovereign nations they had agreed to lock arm in arm against AIDS; and author a persuasive request to the New Zealand government and the Arab gentleman if they will kindly oblige their commitments and fund the “condom gap” estimated to be 2 billion a year in southern Africa, with a post script that a majority of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa are transmitted through unsafe sexual intercourse.
Dense pages of official propaganda often sound bogus because they shy from tackling these paradoxes or make evident the inevitable connections. For instance, a report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on the history of debt servicing can be a key to unravel a UN Aids progress report lamenting 5 million new infections in 2003 compared with 3 million last year; and line of reasoning leads us to look for a connection when the new infections materialize in heavily indebted African nations that utilize 20 per cent of their annual earnings on servicing external debt.
Or why despite the agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights on public health and access to medicines in 2000, it had taken one to three years of sustained U.N. persuasion for pharma companies to reduce the price of AIDS drug therapy from $10,000 per year per person in 2000 to some $450 in 2003.
But take heart.
Ninety per cent of Africans are uninfected by HIV. And, to recall, in the late 1960s and mid 70s, the successful campaign against the small pox-causing Variola virus that posed equally formidable religious, cultural, ethical, tribal, caste and civil war challenges.
Callousness and situational ethics is predictable in a world which Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Paul Salopek, describes is in the grip of “armed capitalism”. The propagandists battling AIDS better knock this idea down also.