23 August 2018
With Beatrice Tonhodzayi
So many years of us living with HIV and levels of stigma and discrimination are still very high. Even self-stigma is still very high; as I have recently found out.
I recently realised that someone very close to me has moments of not accepting her status.
As a result they have moments where they default on their Anti-retroviral therapy (ART)
One thing that medical doctors have clearly told me is that once one is commenced on ART they have to take their medication for life. One cannot take medication and stop as and when it gets overwhelming. When I tried to establish the reasoning behind this; they told me that at times it just gets too much for them. They told me that taking medicines everyday of one’s life is too much. As I delved deeper; I also realized there were other issues. Just accepting that one is HIV positive and would therefore always be HIV positive is not easy. In fact one goes through all sorts of internal battles that others may not be aware of.
One close friend living with HIV at one time just decided that she was not HIV positive. She decided to rail against that result. When I sat her down; I realized that the moments of denial were something that she lives with. As a result, she has defaulted from time to time. She has opted to listen to spiritual leaders who will sometimes tell that she does not have HIV but instead she requires prayers and her healing will come.
But even more worrisome is the friend that has been wasting right before our eyes. I and many others; can see that there is a problem and I am sure so can he. But this has not seen him being forthcoming and going to get tested. Now the people I am talking about here are very enlightened. They would know the benefits of their taking medicines as prescribed by their health practitioner. They have ready access to their medical doctors as well as information and education. Thus you can tell the issue is much deeper. This friend’s health is deteriorating before our very eyes. So I sat them down and tried to broach the subject. The level of dismissiveness I met was something else. What this got me thinking and realizing was that there is still a lot of stigma around. While some think stigma is just about how people and society view and react towards those living with HIV; the truth is that the stigma is even worse at times in us; as you and me.
We do not take it as easily as we wish to portray. So many years after the first cases of HIV in this country; and many are still afraid of knowing whether they are HIV positive or negative. For that reason; there are many who are just walking around with no idea of their status. They are living in hope.
For why else would people waste away in this era where medicines are available? Why else would people deteriorate when information and support are readily available? Isn’t it a fact that there are some Zimbabweans who are now going round saying Cancer is better than HIV? They are now going around saying HIV can always be treated?
But is it that easy?
I do not think so. Just how supportive is our environment to people living with HIV?
How supportive are we as individuals to those in our families and circles who are living with HIV? Have we really stopped making snide remarks about those around us when their weight fluctuates, when their skin changes and when their health suffers? I have heard many people making snide remarks when someone loses weight. Imagine that when you pick on weight; you will be told you look pregnant; then when you work hard to lose the weight; you will be told; you are sick. Sick; for many Zimbabweans has an HIV connotation. Those who look well rounded are said to be healthy while those with difficult skin are again looked at with suspicion and disdain. If we continue in this direction; how can we claim that stigma is a thing of the past? How can we claim to be open minded and supportive?
I have heard some people saying ‘nhingi ari pamapiritsi’; that’s why their behavior is strange. In fact erratic behavior is often linked to an HIV positive status. With such talk, can we be said to be rid of all stigma? I really doubt it.
Well today; I write to say stigma is harmful. Stigma takes us backwards. Stigma has no place in a world where HIV now has medicines that treat it; that allow people living with it to live long and healthy lives. Zimbabwe has done so well to make treatment available; to make care and support available. Many families have also done well to support those of their own who are living with HIV. Couples have stayed together even when one is positive and the other one is negative. HIV is not transmitted by caring or sharing. It is a condition just like Diabetes. Anyone can get it. It does not discriminate based on age, sex or race.
Those who practice self stigma, there is need to reach out; seek health services and move on. It can be done. We have come a long way. We can do that. Lets start by getting tested and knowing where we stand. It makes such a difference. Let’s support one another to accept our status; as well. That way; we make a new start.