33rd World AIDS Day 2021
Today is the 33rd year since the world through the UN decided to commemorate a world AIDS Day, the first celebration being on December 1, 1988. The aim was to bring greater awareness to HIV, its devastation, as well as to commemorate those affected by the disease and instigate more and concrete global actions.
The theme chosen by UNAIDS in 2011 ten years ago was “Getting to zero”. It means that the vision of the world captured in those few words envisioned “zero new HIV infection, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths” as Michel Sidibé, the UNAIDS Executive Director puts it. (M. Sidibé, UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report, 2011).
The same years Eastern Mediterranean reported the increase of AIDS-related deaths among adults and children. “AIDS-related deaths have also almost doubled in the past decade among both adults and children in the Region, reaching a total of 38 000 in 2010 including 4100 children. The estimated increase of AIDS-related deaths among reflects three problems: (1) an accelerating epidemic in the Region; (2) a rise in the total number of women living with HIV (40% in 2010); and (3) the generally inadequate coverage of services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV ». Injustices were also noticed. “In the Eastern Mediterranean Region, the 2011 World AIDS Campaign has prompted discussions among health care providers in the Region about injustices that remain and about improved conditions to work towards.” (http://www.emro.who.int/press-releases/2011/aids-day-2011.html).
Moreover, Commonwealth countries raised several issues on injustice about women, children, new infections, AIDS-related deaths, etc. “Data from the 2010 UNAIDS Global Report shows that over the past decade incidence of HIV has decreased by 25 per cent or more in 33 countries – 12 of them Commonwealth members. However, 7,000 people worldwide become infected with HIV every day, 1,000 of them children… It is a tragic injustice that children are still being born with HIV when the means are available to prevent this … The key to achieving it is ensuring that pregnant women receive the skilled care they require and treatment to not only prevent mother to child transmission, but also to keep them alive, enabling them to watch their children grow ».
They continue that “Despite the fact that the number of deaths resulting from HIV infection has declined, it is still responsible for the death of 5,000 people every day”. They went on and stress that “over half of those in need of treatment are still not receiving it ». The recent global political declaration on HIV recognises that ‘Getting to Zero’ will only be achieved if fundamental human rights and freedoms are upheld ». They conclude that “our Commonwealth approach is to see our work on HIV through the lens of our work on human rights and gender as well as through that of our work on health and social welfare”. (https://thecommonwealth.org/media/news/world-aids-day-2011-%E2%80%98getting-zero%E2%80%99).
This year 2021, the UN theme “End inequalities, end AIDS, end Pandemics” echoes and retrieves in a way these inequalities and injustices that were already playing out in the background since 2011 as the Commonwealth countries and Eastern Mediterranean region show. This situation questions the value accorded to fundamental human rights. “As enshrined in the Constitution of World Health Organization (WHO), access to the highest attainable level of health is a human rights imperative ». Envisioning to end inequalities, to end AIDS and pandemics is, in one way or the other, acknowledging the urgency of the matter to save more lives and build a more just world. It is accepting the failure of humanity to guaranty equal rights and treatment to people, especially those affected and infected with AIDS and other pandemics.
Borrowing from Fr Orobator, the President of the Jesuit conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), we cannot pretend promoting justice, development, if there is still a category of people that are forgotten, who do not matter. “We cannot talk of mercy, compassion, and social justice when there are over 37 million people living with AIDS in the world, of which 25 million are in Africa – women, men and children who are almost forgotten and face inequality in treatment, access to medical care and dignified existence. A call for a just world is a call for the practice of equality without leaving anyone behind”. (Orobator, WAD JCAM message, 2021).
Young people living with HIV are victim of these inequalities, they hardly access health services because of stigma, disrespect, and judgement or blame.
A 23 years-old Congolese young girl sadly told me: “I am HIV positive since I was 5 from, as I was told by my Mom, blood transfusion of my Father. I moved to Beni (Eastern DR Congo) for study reasons. In 2019, I wanted to get my ARVs pills, but it was difficult to get them. Even to see a doctor to present my case I had to make sure nobody else knows why I came to see him. Father, People in the hospital judge young people who present signs of HIV or STIs. I have seen people dying in their homes because they did not want to go to hospital to be discriminated. This situation makes me suffer more than this small invisible virus I have in my blood. If I could meet our leaders, I could really ask them to take care of all the seropositive young girls and boys and help them to overcome all this bad feeling of victimization, of shame and blame they face. And to those working in health institutions, please do not judge, blame, or look at us with disdain. We are also humans and full of talents and creativity”.
This is only one voice, if you go to rural areas even in some cities, you could hear others cries from different faces on Christ who are misunderstood, silenced, put to the margin, abused, and violated, etc. In these regard, Fr Orobator writes “viewed from the perspective of HIV/AIDS, inequalities take social, economic, and structural forms. Persistent inequalities between women and men significantly weaken efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and increase vulnerability. It is critical to call to attention to the social and systemic discrimination that is strongly entrenched in almost all our societal structures. Such discrimination denies those living with HIV a fair chance in life, as they perpetually struggle with a combination of shame, blame, isolation, rejection, and the fear of death”. (WAD, JCAM message, 2021)
In most of the developing countries health system coverage is problematic. Urban areas are better served that rural ones, although most of the population live in rural areas. If we value and leave solidarity, and if we believe in its goods as we were reminded on WAD 2020, if we envision “getting to zero” (WAD2011) and if we want to end inequalities, end AIDS and the Pandemics, than we should make sure “every person living with AIDS, whether in rural or urban settings, should have access to prevention, treatment, care and support, irrespective of their gender, race or religion.” We should also make sure no one is left behind. Moreover, as individuals, nation, institution, we should be ashamed of having everyday babies getting infected with HIV whereas medical advancements and technology have given us, thanks to our loving, merciful, and inspiring God, all the required means to prevent it!
I pray our God for the souls all those women, men, young people, and children who have lost their lives to AIDS, Covid-19 and to other pandemics this year. My prayers also for all who tirelessly care and are still believe in the dignity of a human person irrespective to their condition. May Blessed Anuarite Nengapeta intercede for us all to grow in hope and courage to face the challenges of our times with optimism, audacity, and creativity for a more just and peaceful society.
Matambura Ismael, SJ
Dec 1st, 2021