Stop stigmatising PLWHAs

From the time Botswana registered its first known case of HIV/AIDS, the nation has grappled with the issue of stigma. Much education has been done, mainly by HIV/AIDS service organistions or support groups as they were called then.

Sadly most of the support groups have died and, so have their voice, which played on the nation’s conscience on issues affecting People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Recently Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi complained that government was perpetrating stigma by separating dispensaries for PLWHAs from those of other members of the public. He was right. Stigma remains one of the main barriers to effective responses to HIV/AIDS.

Lately, we are being told there is resurgence in the number of HIV cases. Could the most affected age cohort be people who would shy away from services because of stigma? Let us not forget that unlike in the past, there are strong support services such as centres for PLWHAs.  Going back to the issue of dispensaries and PLWHAs, it is important that government prioritises anti-stigma programmes to encourage positive responses to the epidemic. When the government itself relegates stigma elimination to the bottom of HIV/AIDS programme priorities, then we can be sure people will avoid HIV/AIDS services. Many will die. Already, we are seeing more able-bodied people dying. We find gains we previously attained as a nation being reversed.

Imagine you are queuing up to get your monthly supply of ARVs at a local clinic. You give your card to the pharmacist who quizzically looks at you and points outside to some porta-cabin or caravan where a few others wait.  That, he tells you, is where you get your HIV medication. You walk out, head bowed, acutely conscious of stares of those in the queue. You know they know what your affliction is. You know how they label you and the behavioural stereotypes they attach to you. 

There is no empathy. If anything, they condemn your lose morals. It is important that government should take the lead in helping communities to identify and deal with undesirable stereotypes, and processes that encourage stigma.

As we have already said, such processes abound in our public health system – in our dispensaries, where PLWHAs get medicine away from everybody else, our maternity wards, where infected mothers are identifiable by a tin of Nan powdered milk next to their bed, and the insistence of nurses in front of other mothers, that they should not breastfeed. It is time government incorporated all HIV/AIDS services in the mainstream dispensaries and mothers living with HIV are treated in the same way as others who are not infected.

Otherwise, we will wake up one day to find we have rolled back all the good work so far done in fighting HIV/AIDS.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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