Aids: No longer the hideous disease?

ONE African president is said to have died of it. Another paid a high price for denying its existence. To many analysts, it led to his loss of the job. Others insist there were extenuating circumstances.

But on a recent South African talk-show, two panellists insisted Thabo Mbeki’s suggestion that HIV/Aids did not exist probably lost him so much countrywide support, in the contest for the ANC presidency against Jacob Zuma.

Incidentally, Zuma himself was mired in a controversy originating with whether or not he had himself caught the disease after having sex with an infected relative.

The suspicion was cleared up when he was tested for it and was found negative.

But his admission of adultery left many people, including South Africans, wondering if he had the moral rectitude to carry off the job without being tripped in a similar episode.

In the end, not many could pin anything on Zuma as he is a polygamist who doesn’t hide the fact.

After all, in some cultures around the world, polygamous marriages are perfectly normal. All feminists, including those in South Africa, will continue to condemn the practice.

For the moment, Zuma is free of the odium of being a “legal philanderer”.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, in warning against the spread of the disease a few years ago, lamented the fact that some of his colleagues in the leadership had succumbed to it.

It would have been amazing if he had proceeded to name them.

But Zimbabweans knew who they were, particularly when it was announced they had died “after a long illness”.

At its peak, HIV/Aids was described as a “hideous” disease. Today, more than 30 years since it hit the planet, it has lost some of its terror.

This is largely because it is not the death sentence that it was then.

There are people alive today who contracted the disease at its peak. Most of them survive on  drugs known as ARVs.

Their efficacy has been so widespread that there is now a danger of people behaving as recklessly as they did before the pandemic started knocking down people like 10 pins in a bowling alley.

In Malawi only this month, the government announced it was withdrawing an allowance it was giving to civil servants with HIV/Aids because they were using the money on booze and prostitutes.

Since they could physically ensure that these miscreants did not abuse the government’s generosity, it seemed almost certain that withdrawal of the funds would be the most effective way of saving the taxpayers’ money.

Before HIV/Aids landed on the planet as if unleashed from Outer Space in preparation of a full-scale invasion by aliens, the most deadly sexually-transmitted disease was syphilis. 

But it had already been conquered by drugs: only the very poor and ignorant died from its effects.

A number of prominent people died of it rather than admit they had been infected and would thus be forced to consult doctors.

The origin of HIV/Aids remains a matter of speculation and argument. Initially, it was associated with homosexuality and a place known as Castro Street in San Francisco was said to be its prime location.

Then Africa was cited: the disease had originated with monkeys or gorillas. How it had then been communicated to humans was not entirely clear.

In time, even that theory was debunked.  Most people thought the “blame game” was totally unprofitable.

That was when more research was launched into how to fight the scourge, rather than who had caught it first — a gay man or an African in the jungles of the Congo,

Meanwhile, the stigma against people living with HIV/Aids is being fought on all fronts. But the drugs’ efficacy has spawned another problem.

People using the drugs as regularly as they are required to now look so healthy they can pass for specimens of good health. In some cases, though, they may look “too good” to be “healthy”.

But sex is not something normally determined on a rational basis — which is how HIV/Aids started in the first place.

Bill Saidi is a veteran journalist based in Harare

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