God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

Saints and sinners

Stefan Hippler

Saints and sinners – Billions for the ‘War on Terror’ – alms for the fight against Aids


When I attended the World Aids Conference in Bangkok in 2004 I noticed how few American experts had come to present their latest research findings. I asked a delegate about that, and he cited two reasons. Firstly, the US health ministry delegation had been jeered at the previous Aids summit in Barcelona. Secondly, Washington was increasing spending on its “War on Terror” and cut funding for Aids research. The military machinery in Iraq and Afghanistan, the secret anti-terrorism missions, the military prison camps and torture centre, “extraordinary renditions” of suspected terrorists…all that costs a lot of money. In February 2007, then-President George W Bush proposed increasing the military budget to the astronomical sum of $700 billion. It’s almost impossible to imagine how one could use these hundreds of billions of dollars to fight and alleviate poverty and diseases such as HIV/Aids. Instead the hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on death.
The poor die quicker
The majority of humanity is poor, and the rich countries aren’t really interested in changing that. The example of Aids illuminates the scandal. A few alms are handed out to the fight against as a way of polishing the public image. When President Bush announced his PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Programme for AIDS Relief) fund, initial enthusiasm quickly gave way to disillusionment when it became clear that large portions of the funding had to be spent on expensive medications made in America. Critics charged that with PEPFAR, Bush settled a debt to the pharmaceutical industry which had supported him. To qualify for funding, projects had to satisfy strict moral criteria – the arch-conservatives and fundamentalist Christian supporters of the president demanded as much. Distribution of condoms or working with prostitutes had no place in the Bush initiative. To qualify for support, one had to buy into ideology. Many African countries with exhausted health budgets couldn’t afford to refuse the American offer.

But studies have shown that life expectancy is low even among those who receive medical treatment but live in precarious conditions. Medicine offers limited benefits when one is unemployed, or living with no prospects in disordered circumstances. The Aids pandemic can be beaten only if we manage to overcome the inhumane levels of poverty.

Only in 2008 the guidelines for the PEPFAR programme were more relaxed regarding abstinence programmes and work with prostitutes.

Women are at higher risk from Aids
The majority of infected people globally are women. There certainly are biological and medical reasons for that, but the primary cause is social injustice. In most societies, women can’t haggle with men – they are subordinated and subjugated. The quest for meaningful equal rights hits an obstacle at religious customs and traditional gender roles. South Africa is a good example: Women are the pillars of township life, they typically are responsible for an income, care for the children, put food on the table – but in a conspicuously macho society they have no say. They don’t even have autonomy over their own bodies; sexuality is not a matter of their own discretion. And South Africa’s rape rates are the highest in the world. Women are helplessly exposed to the Aids pandemic and its effects.

Those who know less fall ill quicker
In a battle with poverty, education has no chance. The daily fight for survival is arduous; many people are illiterate, many have never even seen the inside of a school. For them education is an extravagance. Sometimes even church institutions exploit this social deficiency: poor and uneducated people are easier to lead; they don’t ask too many questions. And they have little idea about how to protect themselves against HIV/Aids.

One only needs to speak with some people in Cape Town’s impoverished slums, young adults who barely speak English, if at all. One will soon realise why all these noble education programmes fail. Often they will say that they don’t need advice because they can’t be infected. That may sound crazy – but isn’t that the same argument used by Western sex tourists, who are convinced that when they go on holiday, so does the virus?

I feel helpless after such encounters, and often ask myself what my Church could do. It can’t suffice to say that it is doing a lot in Aids care and in the distribution of Aids drugs. Its response must be more diverse and multi-faceted. My Church’s inquest into the causes of poverty should become more rigorous; it should place greater emphasis on the issue of gender inequality and on the disastrous effects of traditional norms and morality. It must unequivocally denounce the injustices that cry out to the heavens.
Pope John Paul II set a standard when he vociferously condemned the invasion of Iraq. He placed peace, justice and the preservation of Creation on the agenda. Every year, $1,2 trillion is spent on armaments. At the same time millions of people die because of an unfair global distribution of goods, resources and opportunities. We Christians believe that every person is equal in dignity, and that this dignity derives from God’s love. Every person is equally precious, everybody has attributes that should be encouraged, and everyone has a right to life, work, health and physical security – in short, the right to a humane existence.

We Church people must be like prophets in the desert, unceasingly explaining the complex relationship between poverty, underdevelopment and inequality. We must be honest brokers and also be prepared to acknowledge and admit our own shortcomings. We Catholics especially are part of the problem in the area of HIV/Aids. In theological terms, the Body of Christ – the Church itself – is infected with HIV. Only when we regard that illness as our illness, only when the cries of the suffering are our cries, only then will we understand the communion of saint and sinner. And only then are we capable of playing a role as credible agents of change. And only then can we lead by good example.

Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV, Development and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and social development in Africa has its challenges. You will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa, about politics and whatever triggers my interest. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me. Blogging means to initiate thoughts and discussions and for the writer to formulate what is loosely running around in the heart and mind in need of being sorted and spoken out.

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