Without a doubt, the global HIV/AIDS pandemic is a multifaceted tragedy. Many Americans may view AIDS primarily as an unfortunate consequence of individual choice, a disease whose effects are regrettable but mainly limited to those who have ‘chosen’ to engage in unprotected sex. But AIDS has terrible consequences that reach far beyond the physical discomfort and subsequent deaths of immediate victims. In addition to causing extreme physical suffering for victims and severe emotional trauma for loved ones left behind, AIDS brings down the livelihoods of entire communities and the productivity of entire nations, especially in developing nations such as those in which we serve (Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). AIDS does not merely affect those who have it; it is bad news for everyone, and citizens of developing countries seldom have the resources to acquire adequate treatments for it. This means that we, as first-world citizens who possess a dramatically disproportionate share of the world’s resources, must make fighting AIDS around the world a strong priority.
To illustrate the destructive effects that HIV/AIDS has on communities, consider the timing of most deaths caused by AIDS. Most victims contract HIV in their teenage years, many well before the end of puberty. This means that, because HIV lays dormant for about six years on average, the virus begins to manifest itself as AIDS during the early-to-mid-twenties, which is probably the least fortunate age possible. Both in the countries we operate in and in many, many others, most men and woman of that age have multiple, young children and are at their zenith in terms of economic productivity. Their families’ well-being and survival often depend on them, and, if they were to stick around, they could lend decades’ worth of support to their communities.
But way too often, young parents cannot stick around. They succumb to a disease they contracted as teenagers, and when they die, they leave behind orphans who require care. In this way, AIDS not only deprives young ones of their parents; it drains resources from communities that are already economically strapped. Grandparents—grandmothers in particular—often take orphaned grandchildren under their wing, but these older caretakers have less energy and more responsibilities (including other kids) than their deceased sons and daughters had. Sometimes, the orphans have no new caretakers at all; no one local is willing to share enough resources to provide for them, and they are left to fend for themselves.
AIDS causes other, more immediate, but equally devastating resource drains as well. Because AIDS weakens the immune system, making normally tolerable diseases lethal but not technically killing its victims, families will often rush AIDS victims to health facilities to treat these diseases when they set in. (That is, IF they are privileged enough to have such care within reach. In Uganda, for instance, health care access is under 70%.) By paying for extensive treatment, both for AIDS and for the disease it has made life-threatening, families willingly throw themselves into poverty, going into debt in hopes of saving their loved one. Many families struggle to repay their debt for many, many years, especially if the AIDS victim died, thereby damaging the family’s ability to work it off.
Finally, funerals can have a similar effect. In many developing countries, such as Kenya, funerals have a much greater cultural importance than in America. Not to hold an elaborate—and expensive—celebration of the deceased’s life is often considered negligent on the part of surviving relatives. In some places, as in some areas of Kenya, religious beliefs reinforce the attitude that expensive funerals are necessary; an improper send-off jeopardizes the deceased’s position in the afterlife. To put together an adequate funeral, then, families will take on debt beyond their means and struggle thereafter to repay it, sacrificing their well-being in the process. Changing these embedded cultural practices is difficult, and in any case, asking people to curb these spending practices may imply a dubious judgment on the part of the West. Who are we to say they should not spend money on their loved ones in this way? The poor, after all, do deserve to be celebrated. In any case, whether they should or not, the fact is that in developing countries around the world, the poor willingly become poorer in order to pay for funerals of loved ones who die of AIDS.
Clearly, AIDS is not just a disease; it is a cause (or an amplifier) of terrible poverty. Delaying the onset and severity of AIDS through interventions such as antiretroviral therapy not only assuages the suffering of the victim, it prevents the family and the community from having to shoulder all of the intertwined emotional and economic burdens associated with the victim’s death. In this way, the AFCA’s work in providing such interventions uplifts entire families and communities. Our question to the reader is, what will YOU do? For more information on ways you can get involved with our work against HIV/AIDS, visit our website, www.afcaids.org, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or CAllegar@afcaids.org.