|Too Young to Die (Zambia Educational Publishing House, 1992, 56 p.)|
Forget about the Exorcist, Friday the 13th or The Omen. The greatest horror story ever has unfolded with the advent of AIDS. It is a horror story of Oscar Award-winning certainty, starring a virus of mysterious origin which sweeps across the globe wiping out sexually active men and women, intravenous drug addicts and recipients of infected blood or blood products like haemophiliacs and patients with sickle cell disease. The virus can also be transmitted from an infected pregnant mother to her child during delivery but usually before that. It's a shocking story with all the right ingredients of suspense, subtlety, subterfuge, spine-chilling human tragedies and international imbroglios.
Unfortunately the majority of patients are in the impoverished nations of Africa and South America where thousands are dying and resources are overstretched by natural calamities like drought alternating with torrential rains and floods, civil wars and downright mismanagement of economies. Whereas in Africa and South America the bulk of patients are heterosexuals, in the backdrop of complicated geo-political and socio-economic situations, in North America and Europe the majority of patients are homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers, both situations setting the stage for the initial inertia by the controllers of the purse strings:
'Thousands of Africans are dying, Mr. President,' - 'But that is nothing new, Ambassador.'
'Gay communities are being wiped out by this disease, Mr. President,' - 'Well, I see the hand of God in this, Minister. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah, old boy?'
'Drug addicts are vanishing because of this virus, Sir,' - 'Well, now, don't you think the Lord knows what he is doing? This is their comeuppance.
Meanwhile, as the carnage continues, scientists bicker about the origin of the virus.
'Did the virus come with rock samples from the moon?'
'Was this a virus developed for germ warfare by Americans that accidentally escaped into the community?' (Russians)
'Was it introduced by the West to wipe out Africans and South Americans so that they could have the vast resources of the two continents at their disposal'?' (Africans and Latinos)
'Was the virus a result of the World Health Organization's successful eradication of the smallpox virus leading to a mutant becoming pathogenic?' (Armchair experts)
'Was this a virus that has always existed in African monkeys and was transferred to the black-man through monkey meat'?' (Americans and Europeans)
'Was this virus due to God's displeasure at the permissiveness of most societies and man's disregard of the ten commandments?' (Christians)
'Was this a virus made virulent by an increase in ultra-violet rays, the result of a reduction in the ozone layer due to pollution?' (some environmentalists)
The South Africans, true to form, postulate the presence of two distinct viruses, one which seeks out blacks and is very virulent and another which seeks out whites and is much less virulent!
Meanwhile governments are down-playing the extent of the problem so as not to scare tourists who bring in the much-sought-after foreign currency and research funds are disbursed by governments and donor agencies to nations willing to put up projects for research without asking too many smart questions.
Meanwhile some 'scientists' with their heads, necks and trunks in warm sand preach that it is all a big con and there is no HIV infection, while others say that HIV is there, but it is not infectious. But these are soon discredited after many of them fail the ultimate and perhaps most feared test for scientists: a torch-light shone in the left ear is visible in the right ear in most of them, thus casting grave doubts on their ability for deductive reasoning. But there are many other people who believe that their brains are there to keep their ears apart, and pay scant attention to the new watchwords of 'chastity and fidelity in order to save mankind'.
Multinational drug companies see this as a chance to make billion-dollar killings and potentially beneficial drugs are kept under lock and key while 10-year patent rights are demanded, to the utter dismay of Third World governments and worried patients. The other drug dealers in these countries, the herbalists, are also making a thriving business with 'cures' whose recipients always end up at the cemetery prematurely.
Will governments pool resources to fight this virus?
Will drug companies find a cure that everyone can afford and release it before some countries are decimated?
Will scientists find a vaccine to save coming generations?
Will the forces of good triumph over evil machinations of incurable capitalists out for a quick buck irrespective of the human cost?
'Coming soon to a theatre near you. Do not miss it!'
If only it was another made in Hollywood yarn. Unfortunately it's not fiction at all. As you know, it's all too true and happening as you read this. It's a true horror story of frightening proportions, immense projected national tragedies and also a story of great personal suffering by the AIDS victims and their families and friends. The individual suffering can only be guessed at by most people. The torment undergone by the spouses, the children and other relatives is largely unappreciated and, as for the AIDS victims, they go through a harrowing experience. In some African countries the euphemism 'slow puncture' is used to denote AIDS. It's a cruel and impersonal one, but it does illustrate one of the many terrible facets of this scourge; that most victims suffer for several years before finally succumbing to one of the many opportunistic infections or cancers. Looking after AIDS patients can be a numbing and frustrating experience. With no definitive cure, when the crunch comes there is nothing that anyone can do for them except allow them to die as peacefully as possible and with dignity.
I have seen scores of AIDS victims, from children to young men and women in their prime, and even middle-aged grand-parents. I have witnessed the immense sufferings by these patients and their families. It's a very unpleasant sight watching young men and women dying everyday, usually in agony and sometimes totally confused and disoriented. I have seen dozens of these living skeletons, self-respecting adults purging on their beds and I have seen the pain suffered by their close relatives and friends as they watch their loved ones die, ever so slowly. Yes, l have been to the frontline of AIDS and seen all this and more.
I would like to share some of my experiences, try and show some of the individuals behind the statistics; their feelings, their fears and frustrations, and how their families cope or don't cope. Unfortunately, the written word cannot really convey the true reality of this disaster as it is unfolding in many African countries, but I will give it a try anyway.
Why write about these patients at all? Well, the fight against AIDS is everyone's fight, wherever you may be on this globe. My fight, your fight, everyone's; and I hope that by bringing to light this not so-commonly-seen side of the AIDS story, whoever reads it comes out more determined to do his or her bit in stopping the spread of this modern-day plague. For obvious reasons, the names of the patients and their families have been changed.