Stigma & Discrimination Kill the Soul: What we learnt from HIV & AIDS

I feel like I have been here before, like I have travelled this exact same road. It must be eerily familiar, to those of us who grew up and lived through the early days of HIV, its peak and devastation of our families, communities and the whole Southern African sub-region. 

The only difference is that we had no mobile phones, no social media, and cable TV was largely for the very wealthy. We relied on printed newspapers, or radio. Both mass media were still largely controlled by our governments. So, word of mouth was the fast means of passing information.

Our neighbour Trainos died one Friday morning. We did not know from what. His wife was in hospital when we buried him. They said she too may soon follow. They had lost their new-born baby at 7 months. It was the fontanel, the grannies said. But the other women tittered behind their hands. They had, ‘siki’, why was the family lying, they asked? Siki. Sexually Transmitted Infection, (STI), as we know it today. They said Trainos’ wife slept around with all the men in town, then gave it to her poor husband. Yes, that is what these light-skinned Ndebele women did. They were whores like that. I was scared. I started looking at my Ndebele mother with worried new eyes. Could she? Did she? What about prettier and lighter Aunty Veli? Surely, she couldn’t! I reasoned. But what did I know? I was still too young.

We never got enough time to wonder. Soon, we were holding funerals at least one in every week. Then every three days. Then we stopped counting. It was a good week if it ended without a funeral. By 1995 my family was on familiar terms with the sales-representative at Doves-Morgan, the undertakers. ‘So nice to see you Mawarire family!’, he forgot himself and where he was once. But we forgave him. He was just trying to be nice. Soon, the Council of Chiefs met and made a declaration – if a funeral takes more than two days, go back to work, otherwise we will all die of hunger. Tradition said nobody could plough/work the soil when there is an unburied body in the community. You all call it solidarity in English. Or is that Spanish? But that was much, much, later.

For over 10 years, the government kept mum. They pretended that nothing was happening. They issued feverish, (good word!), press statements. No, there was no epidemic. Only a few people had fallen ill. First, they said it was only the gay men. Who else but those depraved human beings, if we could call them that, were catching this dreaded disease? Then they said it was the prostitutes. Yes! We knew it! Siki after all is ‘chigwere chavakadzi’, a women’s disease. Those bloody awful women who stole other good, Christian, happy, hard-working, women’s husbands. Those daughters of Eve, who had no respect for the sanctity of marriage, had brought this calamity to destroy happy families. Songs were composed. Theatre pieces performed. Adverts were flighted. Big billboards went up. The volume was turned to maximum, so that good people could be saved from the evil siki-vectors.

Infected (women), were isolated. Shunned. Stigmatized. The poor men were cuddled and coddled. It was not their fault, so the reasoning went. Thousands continued to die. Urban graveyards started filling up. The government kept mum. Carried on like things were happening somewhere else. This ‘Western disease’, was not worth looking up from their braais & whiskies for.

Meanwhile, gay men started educating themselves and one another. Sex workers organized themselves into cooperatives and movements. They empowered themselves with information, Condoms, and solidarity. The good women and men meanwhile.... continued to get infected, infecting one another and dying in large numbers. We wasted close to 15 years in denial, stigmatizing and discriminating against some groups, rather than taking action to stop the spread of HIV.

I feel like I am back in that year, those wasted years. Governments in Southern Africa had a two months grace period in which to learn and prepare the population for Covid-19. They wasted them. It is good to see some action, finally. But I worry more about the silent killer amongst us, which could be more deadly than the corona virus itself. Stigma and discrimination based on denial.

Ever since COVID-19 arrived on many African shores, most of us have all been tracking its spread. We have been pointing at the skies, at every plane arriving, and wondering if it was bringing more infected Italians, Chinese, Americans. Granted, in the early days of the pandemic, contact tracing – tracing the routes travelled by people infected in late January and February was the right thing to do. But even in those early days, the relish with which government ministers from Kenya, to Zimbabwe etc. read out the details of ‘the cases’, was worrisome. Much drama was made of each one of those people’s travels that the message soon spread; it is those air-travellers. White people. Stay away from them. The governments may not have intended to send these messages, but the consequences are still with us. The relatively small numbers of identified cases in countries like Zimbabwe means the finest details about each person have become a matter of interest and concern.  In late March, as the numbers in South Africa went up, thousands of Zimbabweans ran back to their home country. The finger pointing towards the Limpopo was scary to listen to. A very worrisome video did the rounds in Zimbabwe in March. Some women on a long- distance bus kicked a Chinese man off the bus. On social media, the women were resoundingly congratulated.

Then young Zororo Makamba died in Zimbabwe, the country’s first, (known), fatality. This time even ordinarily reasonable people joined the fray. They demanded to know every single detail of where he had been, who he had seen. Allegations were made that he had infected people knowingly and willingly. The conversations on Twitter were deeply distressing, with far too many basically declaring he had got his just desserts. Fingers remain pointed at those who travel, those who mingled with potential vectors, i.e. Europeans and Chinese. Calls continue to be made, even as I write this, for the names of infected people’s names and full details to be publicized.

I personally came close to stigma in this COVID-19 age. A very close friend was exposed through a third party. Thanks to very fast contact-tracing by the health authorities, he was checked-up two days after the exposure. They advised him to self-isolate. ‘Self-isolate’, that nice sounding phrase, which comes with huge questions in social contexts such as how the majority of Southern Africans live. He had no place to go. He was afraid of going back home to his five-year old child. He called me in a panic. Without a second thought, I gave him access to my empty apartment in Harare. Ten heart-wrenching days later, he was tested and got his negative result. That unfortunately is not the happy ending to the story. On the day the health workers tracked my friend down, he was at work. A big institution. The health workers came fully kitted in their ‘work-clothing’. Soon word went round as to how my friend had been ‘tested’. In the middle of agonizing over where and how to self-isolate, he got calls from co-workers demanding to know his test results. Whatsapp groups lit-up with all kinds of speculations and allegations. His own boss called him, not to find out if he was doing alright, but to demand answers as to why he had brought an infected person onto company premises, whose offices they had entered, and more importantly the boss wanted assurance that they had not entered his office! During that whole period, my friend agonized over what his colleagues were saying, how it was going to affect his mother, and whether he would ever go back to work, even if he tested negative. I worried less about him testing positive, or him being in my apartment. I worried more for his mental state then and in the longer term. He has still not gone back to work. He does not know when they will call him back. Many more stories of this sort are emerging day by day. 

COVID-19 is now here with us. There are many lessons we learnt from HIV & AIDS, the most important one for me is that denial, stigma, and discrimination kill the soul, more than a virus destroys our physical bodies. Most of our communities on the African continent appear to be in denial. Misinformation and contact-tracing have added another layer. Governments are now on the back-foot in terms of messaging and public-education on COVID-19. Instead of passing simple prevention messages, we now have to undo the damage of the earlier messaging on who was infected, what countries they were from or had been to. All of this is exacerbated by the absolutely horrid depictions of the virus in all forms of media! Scary tactics did not work with STIs, neither did they work with HIV. Very ugly supposed depictions of what a virus looks like, are doing nothing to change mind-sets and create compassion in a context of semi-literacy. Television stations, newspapers and online spaces consistently depicting the virus as some nausea-inducing thing serve no purpose other than to cement fear and shunning of those who will be infected and affected. Down the line, we will need to undo the impact of these images, as we learnt from HIV & AIDS too. It is time we moved past ‘plane-spotting’, looking for the carriers of the virus, because community transmission seems to be here. We now need community prevention, solidarity and acceptance. I don’t want to go back to the (early), days of HIV and AIDS. I don’t wish that level of stigma on anyone else.  

Everjoice J. Win is a feminist, development, and human rights activist from Zimbabwe. She writes in her personal capacity.

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