Call for Sustained Leadership in Fight Against HIV/Aids in Namibia

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By Constancio Mwandingi

THE leadership or lack of it, demonstrated on World Aids Day, December 1, 2007, in Namibia was deficiently weak. Many people, especially HIV-positive people, have been disappointed by the kind of leadership presented by national leaders and those at other levels of society on this important day of commemoration.

This should, however, not be surprising given the political events that were taking place in the country that time, topped by the fourth congress of the ruling party, SWAPO. As a result, politics clearly took precedence over the fight against HIV and Aids.

This was a missed opportunity for renewed vigour, determination and dedication to the fight against HIV and Aids in the country. By displaying weak leadership on the occasion of World Aids Day, Namibia sadly failed to live up to last year’s World Aids Day theme of “leadership is being there to care”. Many leaders in Namibia were unfortunately not “there to care” on that day.

However, all was not lost as some leaders took the initiative to lead on that day. Two events highlight these leadership initiatives. They are: the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) colourful gathering at Grootfontein and the reported fasting and other actions of the Uukwaluudhi community, led by their King Josea Shikongo Taapopi. These excellent examples of leadership in HIV and Aids must be applauded and emulated at all leaderships levels of the Namibian society.

King Taapopi’s active leadership in HIV and Aids, especially within his community, did not start on December 1, 2007. He is one of the few traditional leaders who are actively involved HIV and Aids activities. He, for example, attends Regional Aids Coordination Committee (RACOC) meetings in his Omusati Region, something rarely done by other traditional leaders in other regions. So, his exemplary leadership should be emulated by Namibian leaders at different levels, if necessary and effective leadership is to be provided in the fight against HIV and Aids in Namibia.

The NDF gathering at Grootfontein saw two female soldiers leading the way by disclosing their HIV status in public. However, commending this act of courage and honesty by the two soldiers should not only end with their promotion as announced at that occasion. It needs to go further than that.

It would be good for example if this act by the two female soldiers persuaded the NDF, and the Namibian Police for that matter, to change their discriminatory and inexcusable policies and practices of excluding HIV-positive people from recruitment in the NDF and the Namibian Police.

These policies and practices of exclusion of HIV-positive persons from recruitment in the NDF and the Namibian Police (or any other force anywhere in the world for that matter) are not only discriminatory, but are also useless and invalid. They are useless and invalid because they change nothing about the situation of HIV and Aids inside and outside the forces (the Army and the Police).

Certainly, HIV-positive persons would have been in the force already at the time of the exclusion of others, and newly recruited HIV-negative members, who are recruited at the expense of the HIV-positive ones, can unfortunately get HIV any time from recruitment onwards. So, exclusion of HIV-positive persons from being recruited in the army and the police is a useless weapon to combat HIV and Aids.

It does not prevent new HIV infections inside and outside the forces. It does not help those who are HIV-positive already, be it inside or outside the forces. There is thus no justification whatsoever for the application of these policies and practices of exclusion by the Namibian Army and the Police.

What these policies and practices of exclusion do is more harm than restoration. Those individuals excluded from the recruitment in the Army and the Police because they are HIV-positive are likely to be very disappointed and frustrated, because apart from being HIV-positive, they are condemned to prolonged unemployment, poverty and likely ill health.

A situation like that is not helpful in fighting HIV and Aids both for those individuals and the society at large. Where there is HIV, unemployment and poverty together, there is likely to be high morbidity and mortality that cannot only be attributed to Aids but also to the obvious consequences of poverty.

Evidence is therefore not in short supply to confirm that HIV-positive persons can and are indeed serving in the Namibian Army and the Police the same as HIV-negative persons. Three female NDF soldiers who publicly disclosed their HIV status last year confirmed this fact, including those two who disclosed their HIV status publicly on World Aids Day, 1 December 2007, at Grootfontein. They must be saluted for their bravery and honesty!

Accordingly, what should matter is the health and strength of the individual at any given time irrespective of their HIV status. If the Namibian Army and the Police had policies and practices of inclusion and openness towards HIV-positive persons, more of those who are HIV-positive inside the forces (including males possibly) could disclose their status (not necessarily in public) and access the necessary care and support.

In the presence of a general silence and pretence in the Namibian Army and the Police what is happening is the equal treatment of the unequal because those who are HIV-positive would not be given the deserved care and support, but will be treated the same as those who are HIV-negative.

Obviously HIV-positive persons, including soldiers, do not need to be pitied, but need care and support to remain health and perform better.

On the other hand, the failure to provide leadership cannot only be attributed to political happenings in the country during that time. Solidarity Community Care Organisation (SCCO) strongly believes that there is an apparent complacency and conformity in the fight against HIV and Aids in Namibia.

And so SCCO is calling on all Namibians to do all they can to counter the present complacency and conformity that are characterising the fight against HIV and Aids in the country.

Namibia needs to guard against going into a celebratory mood well before the fight against HIV and Aids is over. The fact that there is generally less Aids morbidity and mortality in the country, mainly because of the provision of HIV treatment, should not lead to complacency in the fight against HIV and Aids.

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