As if the social ills of Africa were not enough (ranging from military dictatorships, corruption, poverty, crime, unemployment, hunger, wars, ethnic strife, malaria and tuberculosis), H.I.V.-AIDS has become the latest deadly, silent killer, claiming an estimated 13.7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Yet despite this staggering figure, H.I.V.-AIDS continues to flourish in secrecy, bringing along as it does the burden of shame.
People in the poverty-stricken areas consider AIDS to be the worst curse they have ever experienced. It is spreading like wildfire, mercilessly consuming adults and children alike. Sexually active young people appear to be particularly vulnerable to the killer disease. Not only does it leave death in its wake but also fear, suspicion, frustration, division, helplessness, anger and bitterness. Parents see their children wasting away before their eyes. A survey undertaken by the South Africa Institute of Race Relations in 1999 reported that there will be one million AIDS orphans by the year 2005 in South Africa.
Traditional taboos regarding sex and prevailing attitudes toward sexual promiscuity have effectively branded people living with AIDS with the mark of Cain. To reveal oneself as a person living with AIDS is therefore to declare oneself physically unclean and a potential killer. A public confession also means that the chance of having sexual relations would be minimal in a person’s community. Modern medicine has not, of course, found a cure for AIDS. Moreover, society and religious communities do not have rites aimed at the ritual uncleanness of people living with AIDS.
Coordination of Initiatives
There are many AIDS projects run by religious communities and nongovernmental organizations throughout South Africa. But their efforts remain by and large uncoordinated. The ministry of health has taken the lead in an attempt to coordinate AIDS-related projects. This has sent the signal that the government considers AIDS a deadly threat to the well-being of society and therefore seeks to combat the disease and to alleviate the suffering of people living with AIDS. Funding has also been poured into a national research project on AIDS.
Coordination at national, provincial and community levels will raise the awareness of the seriousness of the disease. It is this visibilityprivate and public efforts to address the disease, to care for the people living with AIDS and to dissuade people from thinking that AIDS will strike only their neighborsthat will bring about a significant change in attitude. So far the government has lavishly promoted the use of condoms (though some people believe that advocating widespread use of condoms may trivialize sexual relations).
Hospitals cannot cope with the growing number of people living with AIDS. And indeed not much more can be medically done for them. It is therefore imperative that communities should begin in earnest to alleviate the suffering of the sick by caring for them pastorally. In the various dioceses of the Catholic Church in South Africa, a plethora of home care initiatives have arisen. It is important to lift the spirits of those who live with AIDS so that they do not sink into despair or torture themselves with a sense of guilt and consider themselves rejected members of society. To be Christian is to show mercy and to take care of the sick, to heal their spirits if we cannot heal their bodies. This is a ministry that should appeal to youth so they may sustain other young victims in their time of need.
There is a dire need to have tailor-made educational programs that will address the meaning of sexuality, its role within the family and how AIDS threatens the well-being of individuals and communities. Most religious traditions uphold and advocate the virtues of abstinence, self-control and sacrifice. These virtues are not archaic. Indeed, they may even reduce the incidence of the killer disease.
Public funerals for people living with AIDS are also on the increase. And yet the subject of the cause of death is hardly mentioned: AIDS still has a powerful stigma. This stigma has to be addressed through an educational program designed to liberate people from the fear of accepting reality. Communities must address the mystery of human brokenness that calls for a collective response while at the same time respecting the dignity and privacy of people living with AIDS.
It is equally important to encourage AIDS sufferers to come to terms with their illness. It is punishable by law knowingly to inflict others with the virus. In a society where AIDS is understood as a deadly disease and where the value of charity to others is highly prized, voluntary testing for AIDS would be an affirmation of the value of life. It is incumbent upon people living with AIDS or those who may have cause to believe that they might be infected, to be heroic by avoiding the possibility of inflicting others with the disease. This abstinence can be the greatest gift they can give to those they truly love. Much has already been asked of people living with AIDS. But this is a moral responsibility that cannot be easily set aside. It is also the responsibility of communities to support the sick in their moral, spiritual and physical struggle.
It is also crucial for the church to address anew, as it were, the ethics of sexuality within the context of the AIDS pandemic. There is a strong desire to hear a fresh presentation of the church’s moral teaching on the use of condoms, on contraception, on premarital sex and so on, especially in the light of this killer disease. A reminder of the moral obligation of communities and the virtues of charity and caring will not be out of place. It is for this reason that the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference will be requested to work out a pastoral statement on AIDS. Such a pastoral statement will help raise the level of awareness of the disease and will also contribute to the public debate on the killer disease. Surely the public will welcome any positive contributions toward the avoidance or alleviation of the widespread suffering of people.
The Most Rev. Buti Tlhagale is the archbishop of Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was in the United States recently to help inaugurate a joint project with the Catholic Medical Mission Board and Bristol-Myers Squibb to fight AIDS in South Africa.