Charlotte's Web

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28 Stories of AIDS

I’ve just finished reading Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen’s exceptional book 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa – she tells one personal story for every million of the 28 million people living with AIDS in Africa. Author Adam Hochschild says in his blurb on the back that Nolen is putting “a series of human faces on the greatest health crisis of our time”, and that’s what the book has done for me. Made AIDS more human.

It has also taught me some facts about AIDS that I found interesting:

  • The stereotype that Africans have more sexual partners than Europeans and Americans is not true. However, what makes them more susceptible to AIDS is that they have their sexual partners concurrently, while Westerners tend to be serial in their sexual relationships.
  • The AIDS virus mutates, so if people stop taking their meds and then start again, it’s possible that they will no longer be resistant to the virus. Those who are lucky enough to have antiretrovirals (ARVs) have to take them every day at exactly the same time.
  • Ground-breaking microbicide research is taking place in my home province, KwaZulu-Natal. A microbicide is similar to a spermicide that women can use with or without their partners’ knowledge, thus giving them the power to protect themselves against AIDS. Microbicide research has taken years to get off the ground because pharmaceutical companies don’t believe it is profitable enough to be worth pursuing. Expensive ARVs – for treating people who already have AIDS – are. Makes you sick.
  • Nolen could just as easily have called her book 26 or 30, because data collection in sub-Saharan Africa is notoriously weak. Her feeling is that the statistic of 28 million is conservative. Numbers aside, it’s still an epic crisis.

Here’s what she says about why the response to AIDS has been so muted:

Few people outside Africa seem to understand the scale or the epic gravity of what is happening here. When I talk to people at home about the pandemic, I get the sense that they feel a dying African is somehow different from a dying Canadian, American or German – that Africans have lower expectations or place less value on their lives. That to be an orphaned fifteen-year-old thrust into caring for four bewildered siblings, or a teacher thrown out of her house after she tells her husband she is infected – that somehow this would be less terrifying or strange for a person in Zambia or Mozambique than it would be for someone in the United States or Britain.

And so I wanted to tell their stories – to tell how they want to do to high school, or build up a small taxi business, or meet their grand-children. When people in Tanzania or Botswana find themselves fighting governments – their own and and those in the West – and multinational pharmaceutical companies and their own families and the neighbours who isolate and fear them, that is every bit as bizarre and daunting for them as it would be for you and me. I have met the beauty queens and the soldiers and the young lovers and the scientists who live with AIDS in Africa, and I know that the only way that they are different from me is that they have the misfortune to live in countries that are economically and politically marginal – that they are black and they are, quite often, poor, and so their lives can slip away unremarked.

Westerners do feel helpless and get compassion fatigue, but there are things to do, says Nolen. On her website, she details organizations that gratefully receive money and channel it correctly to the most needy. We can also talk about AIDS and keep the conversation going – prod our governments about their response to the crisis. On her site, Nolen says these are the questions we can ask:

Write or call your government representative to talk about funding levels for the fight against AIDS – how much has your country given the Global Fund? How much did it promise – did it deliver? What percentage of GDP does your country give to foreign aid – are you reaching the target of 0.7 per cent? Does your country have outstanding debts from African countries, who are paying off those loans instead of hiring nurses? Does your government subsidize farmers – such as cotton or rice growers – who then dump their subsidized products in Africa, making it impossible for local farmers to earn a living? Does your government allow African countries to export consumers goods to your country without prohibitive tariffs? These are the questions to ask, and the kinds of policy changes that will make a difference in Africa.

Tomorrow, I plan to talk more about AIDS and introduce you to someone from my home town who has AIDS. I want to keep this conversation going.