By Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
Having covered HIV and AIDS issues for the past five and half years, I have grown to know many of the faces in the AIDS community.
I am always left cursing and depressed and angry after covering assignments where I meet with People Living With HIV and AIDS. (We call them PLWAs here.)
I know almost everyone's "story", including deep secrets they say they never have and never will tell anyone else. I am invited to their private family parties; they ask me to cover their support group functions. They even phone to update me on their health; when they are too sick to call me, they ask their relatives or spouses to do it on their behalf.
I always listen, comfort, offer advice and help where I can; I have become very close to many people affected by AIDS. I appreciate the fact that they trust me that much. And I love talking to them. But when these " friends" confide in me, they usually have problems and depressing news.
Often I am left stressed, because I cannot help. This special community of friends all know I have no financial means to help them, being the underpaid journalist that I am. They know that I, too, struggle to make ends meet in this harsh economic environment that is Zimbabwe.
What is my life like? I have chosen to work for the so-called independent press. Supposedly I am playing a very crucial part in writing the history of Zimbabwe. Yet I live on less than $0.43 USD a day! Here is how I calculate this $0.43 USD cents per day: it’s very simple. I currently earn a salary of Z$13 million a month. When divided by 30 days in a month, this means that I earn $43 USD per month!
Then when I divide this amount by the current black market rate of the United States dollar to the Zimbabwe dollar -- Z$1 million -- it means that my employer expects me to live on $0.43 USD cents a day.
I am supposed to be a professional; was this why I went through college and graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Mass Communication and Journalism?
I attack the present government for their failures; for ruining the economy, for underpaying civil servants. I cover civil servants’ strikes (nurses, doctors, etc) and demand that the government remunerate these people better. My colleagues and I write stories showing how their strikes are crippling delivery of critical health services and putting people's lives at risk. Often, our reports produce good results: the problems get addressed.
Civil servants are rewarded salary increments, making them happy. Yet at the end of a day spent covering their problems, I am supposed to go back and take care of my two children on $0.43 cents USD a day. This is the hidden hypocrisy of the owners of some of these independent press publishers: they pocket all the profits and buy expensive cars and houses, and live like kings and queens -- by exploiting us.
Our former classmates in the state-controlled media are much better paid for promoting Mugabe's propaganda. Journalists for the state-controlled media the same drive expensive cars the press moguls do; they live in up-market suburbs. Meanwhile, we in the so-called independent press live from hand to mouth.
The comfortably situated journalists laugh at us behind our backs, saying, "Those people are selling out their country and are getting nothing for it." There is a really painful truth in this: the people who first started this struggle against Mugabe have stabbed us in the back! They have become greedy, and so in one sense are even worse than Mugabe himself. In any case, they have really missed the boat.The many independent journalists here comfort ourselves that we have a passion for what we are doing. This is what keeps us going. Then I sometimes think, what would happen if one day I just said to the people with AIDS who count on me, “Please don't tell me about your problems, I don't work overtime. Besides, I’m underpaid anyway.” I could do that, but I don't want to. I chose this profession; I have a passion for journalism and will never tire of doing my work. I travel to see people with AIDS regularly when they have problems. I pay my bus fare from my own pocket; I buy flowers and fruits when I visit the sick, whether they are at home or in hospital. I always use my own money to do this; never once have I claimed a cent in compensation from the company for which I work.
My publishers don't stop to think that the associations I have developed over the years with the AIDS community are the reason why their newspaper is rated so highly for its HIV and AIDS reporting. Ironically, they have received many awards over the years for this coverage. This is how it works: one PLWA will tell another PLWA that this reporter from this paper is sympathetic. Then, BOOM -- the next minute I have a scoop on my desk. Just like that, their paper sells out that day. I write from my heart, but unfortunately, my bosses apparently think I just work some sort of magic!
I love what I do, but I have grown to hate the capitalists who are focused on profits and profit sharing, and nothing else. I am not saying that I should be paid a fortune. I don’t want to start cruising around town in the latest, most expensive cars. But please, just pay me enough for my basics: my rent, food, transportation and clothing!
The good thing is that my PLWA friends know I have no financial means to help them. Nonetheless, they find solace just in sharing their issues with me. I have no problem with this, but I can't help but feel useless and angry at a system that has betrayed these men and women. What am I expected to do when they tell me they have no money for food, for ARVs, for general medication, or for school fees for their children?
Last week I attended and covered a function hosted by the New Life Support group, which is a post-test club for PLWAs. It was set up by Population Services International (PSI), an international non-governmental organization (NGO).
PSI-Zimbabwe conducts social marketing projects on behalf of the government's Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. It has programs with the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council and the National Aids Council on HIV and AIDS prevention and Tuberculosis.
So at this function I bumped into most of my friends; they were graduating after having completed a Life Skills and Sex Education Examination. They will now go back to their respective communities and teach the young and the old about issues of HIV and AIDS.
But the assignment left me worried about three special cases.
One AIDS friend whom for security reasons I will call Pamela told me that she still had not found an NGO to help her get onto third line Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART), which is not yet available in Zimbabwe.
This is particularly sad because early this year, the private media ran a story on Pamela’s desperate need for these drugs as soon as possible, asking for donations, since at that time Pamela's CD4 count was at a low of 50. (The CD4 count tells a doctor how strong a patient’s immune system is, how far HIV has advanced, and it helps identify the health problems for which a person is at risk and helps determine which medications might be helpful. Normal CD4 counts in adults range from 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.) Pamela had been treated with both first and second line therapies in 2002. Then two years ago, she was told that she needed third line treatment -- urgently.
When a person begins ART, they start on first line drugs (these are readily available in Zimbabwe but also relatively expensive). First line drugs such as Stamudivine, Lamudivine and Nevirapine are available free through the goverment's ARV program.
Many have described the side effects they now suffer from due to prolonged use of the drugs. If or when a patient develops problems with or resistance to all of the first line drugs, that person is then moved over to the second line drugs (which are more expensive in Zimbabwe because they are imported from outside the country).
Pharmacies here take special orders for these second line drugs, but only for those who can afford them. These drugs can be imported from neighboring countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique as well as Europe. Then if one is unfortunate enough to develop resistance to second line drugs, a PLWA has to move to third line drugs, whose availability and expense is the same as second line; but which are only available for those who can afford to import them.
And Pamela cannot afford all this. So, two years down the line and almost five months after the newspaper article appeal, Pamela has not yet found a donor who will contribute funds for her third line treatment. It is clear she is living on borrowed time.
Her CD4 count is now down to 34; time seems to be running out for her very quickly. When I spoke to Pamela at that graduation, she was her usual self: chirpy and talkative and bravely hanging in there. I found myself admiring her strength. Her little shoulders were carrying all that excess baggage but it didn't even show, except to those who knew her.I also briefly spoke to Samuel (not his real name) who lost his job at a local hotel because his employers said he was looking "sickly." They argued that for the sake of the company’s image, they could not keep him on. They forced him into early retirement.
The private media also carried a story on Samuel, who sought the help of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights in seeking some redress from the hotel. His case has been pending for three years; now he is concerned that the courts are too pre occupied with political cases between the Movement for Democratic Change and the ruling ZANU PF to be concerned with "small fish" like him. He had hoped that by this time the hotel would have compensated him. Samuel's pension is slowly running out and soon he may not be able to buy his ARVs, nor to take care of his family.
Then there is Roselyn (not her real name); she has no money to buy ARVs in the private sector and has failed to enroll in the free state-run program. A mother of two, she fears that if she cannot access ARVs soon, she will die and leave her children orphans. We have tried to get Rose into programs run by NGOs, but most of them are full. They say they will only start enrolling new patients after the elections next year.
This is the political situation affecting health funding in Zimbabwe: not only are many HIV programs very poorly funded, but funding on health and HIV and AIDS generally has dried up, as many countries continue to withhold funds in protest to of the human rights abuses, the corruption and misrule of the Mugabe-led government.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, health financing through donor support per person in Zimbabwe is now down to $4 USD per annum. Compare that to the $104 in Botswana, $39 in Lesotho, $192 in Mozambique, $139 in Swaziland, $362 in Uganda and $190 in Zambia. Does anyone believe it is just donor fatigue that is controlling the funds that go to Zimbabwe?
And caught in this political struggle are my friends Rose, Samuel and Pamela. Many AIDS victims in Zimbabwe continue to die needlessly; while they have no access to ARVs, the small portion of ARVs that are available are being issued corruptly to those with "government connections".
The outlook is frightening:
More than 1.8 million are living with HIV. Of this figure, at least 3000 people die from AIDS-related illnesses in Zimbabwe each week.
Only about 86,000 people have access to these life-prolonging ARV drugs, while more than 800,000 people are in urgent need of them. Of the 86,000 lucky enough to be on ART, 95 percent of those are on first line treatments; 4 percent are on alternative first line treatment; and 1 percent are on second line treatment.
Zimbabweans are now running the race for universal access to treatment "on a thorny track on bare feet," as one activist put it. Life or death is a human rights issue, and it is my hope that donor agencies will soon see things differently. The situation here is not just a political problem that needs to be solved. The lives of very real people involved.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.