Politics, Sci-Tech

Analysis: Five big ideas for World Aids Day

By Branko Brkic 16 November 2009

The ways to lay the ghost of Dr Beetroot to rest is to focus on the future and acknowledge accessory blame – not to try to shift all the responsibility on to others.

It’s common knowledge that the Zuma administration is determined to change the perception that SA is not doing enough to combat HIV/Aids. One of the recent tendencies has been to blame the previous administration for all of South Africa’s HIV/Aids failings. At a recent public meeting, the Young Communist League’s Buti Manamela went so far as to imply that former president Thabo Mbeki, together with his controversial health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, should be charged with genocide.

According to The Times, Manamela said, without naming names: “Those who have denied the existence of HIV/Aids must be brought before the commission and tried for genocide.”

The change of approach cannot but be lauded, but using Aids to settle old political scores is surely taking the issue down the side-path of politics rather than making public health the front-and-centre issue.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi fell into the same trap recently speaking in Parliament, saying the government’s past attitude was “shocking”. “In the past, we were not really fighting HIV/Aids, we were fighting against each other,” he told reporters. Fine, please let’s get to the future.

Mbeki’s hostility to conventional Aids treatment will forever haunt his legacy. Harvard University researchers estimate that the Mbeki government’s hostility to standard Aids treatment led to 365,000 premature deaths in South Africa between 2000 to 2005 alone. Yet laying all the fault on Mbeki constitutes a convenient out for many in the ANC who failed to effectively stand up to his approach at the time. Motsoaledi himself, who now finds Mbeki’s approach so “shocking”, was a member of the Limpopo provincial administration in 1994, yet there is no record of the provincial administration defying Mbeki on anti-retroviral policy as the DA-controlled Western Cape provincial administration did. Mbeki’s shame is more general than current ANC members would care to admit.

World Aids Day in two weeks’ time provides the administration with an ideal opportunity to lay all these ghosts to rest and start afresh. To demonstrate this change, here are five ideas about what to do on that day.

  1. Get public figures, from the president to sports stars to television personalities to meet somewhere, the more public the better, and all take Aids tests. Knowledge of Aids status is the key to preventing its unintentional spreading. Plans are apparently afoot to organise a function like this including President Zuma, but it needs to be big, splashy and all-embracing. The critical thing is to emphasise widespread support for the notion of testing and to demonstrate how quickly and easily it can be done. Former president Thabo Mbeki never submitted to a public Aids test on the basis that it was a “publicity stunt”. This is precisely why the leaders of a new government should be publically tested – to demonstrate the change of approach. Publicity stunts work, just ask Sir Richard Branson.
  2. Cover a national monument in each major city in pink latex. This is not a new idea. In 2005, Argentine authorities covered the Obelisk of Buenos Aires with a 67m-long “condom” as part of an awareness campaign for the World Aids Day. South Africa urgently needs to take the embarrassment out of using condoms, and one way to do that would be to make wearing condoms seem like fun.
  3. Have a minute of silence at midday. This is an oldie, but also a goodie. One of the biggest problems with Aids is people don’t think about it enough. To encourage a minute of silence is to encourage self-awareness and build resolution to deal with the problem.
  4. Send everybody with a cellphone a personal SMS from the president encouraging them to be aware, be tested and support those who have Aids. Tests have shown that an SMS to remind people to take their medicine, for Aids or for anything else, actually work. Almost everyone in SA has a cellphone and consequently, this personal, immediate form of communication could help.
  5. Set up a public website where people with Aids can tell their stories, and insist that broadcasters and the media publish at least a few of these stories through the day. It’s critical to humanise Aids and demonstrate how close it is to everyone before they contract Aids rather than afterwards.

These are just ideas. There are many more. If you have an idea, by all means add it to the end of this post. The point is not how public awareness is created, but that it should be done on a consistent basis, without shame, without insinuating some paranoid plot or mixing the virus in with some political agenda.

The point is to get to the point. It’s an opportunity the Zuma administration cannot afford to miss.

By Tim Cohen

Photo: Aids patient Sannah Seetotale (R) waits to receive her food from volunteer worker Matshidiso Masuku in Orange Farm in Johannesburg November 29, 2006. South Africa will unveil a new plan aimed at fighting its HIV/AIDS crisis on Friday, seeking to calm bitter debate and revise policies that have thus far done little to stop the epidemic. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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