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by denial: A case for Zimbabwe
March 30, 2005
It is difficult to overstate the trauma and hardships that the increase
in AIDS related morbidity and mortality has brought upon children
in Zimbabwe. According to Unicef, one in five children in Zimbabwe
is an orphan and a child dies of AIDS every 15 minutes. These statistics
are not just accurate but an underestimation of the gravity of the
problems bedeviling Zimbabwe.
being denied a basic family life, they lack love, attention and
affection, and they're similar to children living in war-ravaged
countries. They are pressed into caring for ill and dying parents,
removed from school to help with the household or pressed into sex
for survival to pay for necessities. They have less access to health
care services. They are often treated harshly or abused by foster
or step parents and society at large. Relatives and neighbors charged
with caring for these children frequently take the children's inheritance
leaving them more vulnerable to mortality, illness and exploitation.
These problems are occurring in a society where children are already
undernourished and impoverished.
How does the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Global
Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria among other philanthropic
agencies explain a per capita spending on H.I.V./AIDS of $4 per
head per annum in Zimbabwe compared to $187 per head in neighboring
Zambia where both prevalence and incidence rates are lower?
Across Zimbabwe over a million children are experiencing poverty,
enormous mental stress from witnessing the illness and death of
their parents and loved ones, and a profound sense of real insecurity.
These inadequately met concerns are the fundamental human rights
and needs of children and there is an urgent requirement to ameliorate
their physical and psychosocial distress and suffering. It can not
be argued otherwise that the health care system in Zimbabwe has
long since collapsed and Zimbabwe's internal efforts to fight AIDS
have in fact been constantly thwarted and undermined by the international
community for "technical" and yet ultimately political
I was one of the first persons to concur that the Zimbabwean government's
proposals to the Global Fund had serious technical weaknesses, but
the suggested actions put together by experts were never implemented.
This in itself demonstrates a more sinister motive to discredit
the AIDS response by Zimbabwe based purely on political indifference
of the international community and indigence by the Zimbabwean government.
Furthermore, there is no logical explanation as to why Zimbabwe
was not included in President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
when all of its surrounding neighbors including South Africa, Zambia,
Botswana and Mozambique are focus countries receiving funding from
the $15 billion pledge.
"There are only two possible responses to suffering on this
scale. We can turn our eyes away in resignation and despair, or
we can take decisive, historic action to turn the tide against this
." President George W. Bush said, demonstrating
his global leadership in fighting AIDS. Alas on AIDS in Zimbabwe
the United States has led the entire donor and international community
in not just choosing to "turn away in resignation and despair"
but in punishing Zimbabweans for the "sins" of their government
and political leaders.
Over 160,000 people living with AIDS will die this year alone in
Zimbabwe. This will undoubtedly result in likely increased instability,
crime and other social problems and human rights abuses. H.I.V.
infection levels are likely to increase significantly as people
in desperate circumstances have to concentrate on immediate survival
needs, not on protecting themselves from long term health problems.
Lack of sufficient care now is a recipe for the increased spread
of H.I.V. infection and social insecurity.
No "terrorist attack" or war has ever threatened the lives
of over 40 million people globally at one time. The institutional
response to AIDS internationally has tended to mirror personal responses
including initial denial, blame, repression and ultimately a varied
degree of acceptance. However for Zimbabwe the primary limitations
are inadequate international and local funding, weak political response
exasperated by donor fatigue and a morbid desire by the international
community to punish President Robert Mugabe and his government for
alleged human rights abuses, flawed electoral laws and an unpalatable
land reform and redistributing program.
Never in history has there arisen such a widespread fundamental
threat to human development as AIDS, and Zimbabwe is experiencing
the most severe H.I.V./AIDS epidemic in the world today. National
Antenatal prevalence is in parts of the country between 35 percent
and 70 percent. This clearly threatens development, food security,
productivity, human resources and soon national and regional security.
This is a long term development disaster for the region on a scale
never witnessed before, yet the major limitations of the response
to AIDS has been the failure of others to learn and act effectively
from those most impacted.
This is a time for decisive leadership, a time for action, a time
to put aside political demagoguery; this is a time to think and
act for the cause of humanity. We need to re-focus and channel resources
to rebuild and strengthen Zimbabwe's health care and response mechanism.
Agreed, there remains a question of accountability on the part of
the Zimbabwe government, but surely there are ways to go around
that threat. For instance, channel the AIDS response funds through
the United Nations Theme Group on H.I.V./AIDS or through the World
Health Organization or more directly to N.G.O.s - not withstanding
the recently passed N.G.O. Bill of Zimbabwe which to this day the
president has not assented to. The bill in material terms does not
prohibit external funding to N.G.O.s that are providing humanitarian
services not linked to the internal politics of Zimbabwe.
If we do not act fast and now, history and posterity will judge
us all for our inaction. Zimbabwe's children are a generation in
peril and it's our time to show that we care. Yes it is our time
to show that the international community will stand by the most
vulnerable and weak in their time of need. It is not the "body
politick" that has H.I.V./AIDS in Zimbabwe and are bearing
the burden of care. But it is the ordinary men, women and children
who are now looking up to the international community for their
*Dr. Frenk Guni is an AIDS activist and the winner of the 2003 Jonathan
Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights among other international
accolades in public health.
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