Bishop's Blog

Confronting the HIV/AIDS Crisis

As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, recent headlines have confirmed that two men have recently been charged, and rightly so, with several counts of aggravated assault for allegedly infecting a number of women with the AIDS virus as a result of having unprotected sex even though they were fully aware of the likely outcome of such behaviour.

Nevertheless, we must go beyond our usual talk about HIV/AIDS in Canada, principles of sexual morality (the need for abstinence and self-control before marriage and fidelity within marriage), behaviour modification, and/or the utility and morality of condom usage.

Consider the story about a little girl named “Ruth” as told by a young priest named, Fr Joe Arimoso, SJ, who was ordained in 2003.

Ruth’s parents had died the previous year from AIDS, leaving behind Ruth, her elder sister about fifteen, and her young brother about ten to fend for themselves. Because of lack of food at home, Ruth had run away to try life on the harsh streets of Harare. She came back after a few weeks, sick. Nobody knew what really happened to her out there, she could not talk. But here she was, with no parents, no love, no care, just a few sympathetic women.

Fr. Joe says: “I looked at Ruth again and in that single paralyzing moment I saw the face of poverty, the face of AIDS, I saw that shadowy face of despair hovering over hope. She half opened her eyes and looked at me. When she blinked, a shy teardrop escaped from her left eye. Ruth was crying. A wave of emotion overcame me and I broke down with her. I wondered what was making me shed tears then. Little did I know that I was already grieving for Ruth. She died twenty minutes after I anointed her. And I am sure the sympathetic neighbours buried her in that thin blanket of faded maroon.

It has been over a year and a half since Ruth died, but I still see her. I see her in the old women walking long distances, I see her in the pathetic fields of corn, I see her at funerals. But I also see her in the little girls giggling on their way to school, I see her at the baptisms of infants, I see her at weddings. I will forever see Ruth in the fusion of consolation and desolation. It seems there are no happy endings in pastoral work. Perhaps it's just continuity, unfolding new meaning with each encounter, shaping and reshaping our faith.”

Fr. Paterne-Auxence Mombe, SJ, also an African missionary, points out that even as our Western counterparts afflicted with the disease return to work, many in Africa succumb in the direst of circumstances. There are no magic tales like Magic Johnson in Africa, no ‘miracle cures’ for HIV-positive babies but, according to Mombe, there is hope. Good macro nutrition, for instance, is one way to fight opportunistic infections arising from HIV. “Good food is often the only way to alleviate the disease,” he says, “so HIV-positive people must eat twice (as well as) normal.”

The struggle to overcome the HIV/AIDS pandemic must address the deep-seated poverty in which it flourishes.

Early in the onset of the disease, people with HIV/AIDS experience reduced nutrient absorption, disruption of appetite and metabolism and wasting of muscles, organs and other tissue. Recovery requires eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes more protein to rebuild muscle tissue, more energy-rich foods for weight gain, immune system-boosting vitamins and minerals and uncontaminated water to combat dehydration.

Four out of five African families depend on small-scale agriculture for their livelihood. When AIDS strikes, weakened farmers cultivate smaller areas, grow less labour-intensive crops, and sell of livestock.

In Zambia, when the head of the household becomes ill, 53% fewer hectares of crops are planted. Women who are the primary food producers, spend less time in the fields and more time caring for eh sick. When women (who make up 58% of HIV positive people in Sub-Saharan Africa) become ill, they are less able to use their knowledge of alternate foods that have traditionally kept people alive during times of drought.

The effects of HIV/AIDS on agriculture are both immediate and long-term. As savings are diverted to immediate needs - health care expenses and also funerals - they are no longer available for investment in improving agricultural productivity. Hunger forces people into high-risk survival strategies. Desperate for food they migrate to cities in search of non-existent employment. Some turn to prostitution, increasing their vulnerability to HIV infection.

Another part of the poverty problem exacerbating the situation is unpayable debt.

Zambia’s Education Minister would like to hire 9,000 more teachers to meet the country’s education goals (having lost 2,000 teachers to AIDS in each of 2001 and 2002). But he cannot do so, not because of insufficient graduates from teachers’ college or lack of resources. Rather the conditions attached to Zambia’s Structural Adjustment Program limit spending on public sector wages of 8% of GDP.. Classrooms are empty because Zambia must adhere to International Monetary Fund and World Bank conditionality in order to qualify for debt relief.

Furthermore, unequal trade impoverishes. The cost of producing a pound of cotton in Burkina Faso is just 21 cents compared to 73 cents in the US. Yet the African nation can not compete due to huge US subsidies. In 2001-2002 the US subsidized its cotton growers to the tune of US $3.9 billion, doubling the amount since 1992. The US is the world’s largest cotton exporter, selling 40% of its crop abroad. West African cotton farmers cannot compete against such huge subsidies.

Writing off all Sub-Saharan Africa’s remaining debt, fundamentally transforming the trade system, and taking immediate action to keep HIV positive people healthy are necessary steps to contributing to economic recovery and helping stamp out the premature deaths of young girls like Ruth.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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