Preachers need reality check on AIDS

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 24 Jul 01


Dear Noble Khan (President of the Inter-Religious Organisation) and Rev Winston Gopaul,

 

Your statements published in Wednesday’s Guardian made me think my head was being boiled in a cauldron of rage.

 

Your statements unfurled the unforgettable image of an emaciated eight-year-old girl, called Kesi, red nail polish daubing her tiny nails, from my memory. She died two years ago from full-blown AIDS. She was infected at birth by her mother, who was infected by her straying husband, Kesi’s father. Both of them were innocent victims of a man who didn’t use a condom.

 

And I saw you two, proudly displaying the stripes of your faith, condemning her, because the rest of us are too complacent and hypocritical to openly acknowledge that unprotected sex kills, and that whether religious leaders like yourselves realise it or not, people will have sex out of wedlock, but they don’t deserve to die for not heeding you.

 

Dose of Reality

 

Let me remind you what you said about government’s decision to lift restrictions on the sale of condoms:

In a telephone interview yesterday, Khan said in his view, all sex was sacred and holy so the need for more access to condoms by the general public did not arise.

 

Gopaul said the HIV/AIDS problem had to be addressed another way. They should do the things people have been suggesting all the time - teach the people to be more responsible in their sexual behaviour.

 

Who are the “They”? The “They” are religious leaders like yourselves who need to be armed with knowledge, empathy and a strong dose of reality in order to do God’s work and save lives.

 

You have a ready-made audience of parents, teachers, grandparents, young people in front of you whenever you preach. Use the time to educate people rather than making them feel guilty, or condemning them with empty threats that you are not sure God agrees with.

 

Sex out of wedlock is not the issue here - if we all start judging one another, stones will fly everywhere, because God knows, we’re all sinners. Responsibility is the issue, defined as a man who will use a condom to protect himself and others when he engages in sexual activity.

 

You do know, don’t you, that along with Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas, we have one of the world’s highest incidence of HIV after sub-Saharan Africa; that in 1996 there were well over 300,000 reported cases of AIDS/HIV in the Caribbean? That the real figures are much higher? And that the spread of AIDS/HIV is much higher in women and children?

 

I asked a highly respected AIDS researcher/doctor to respond to your statements.  This is, in part, what he wrote:

“In a study of 245 heterosexual couples who were HIV-discordant (one was HIV-positive, the other was not), none of the 123 male or female partners who used condoms consistently was infected. However, 12 of 122 partners who didn’t use condoms or used them inconsistently did get infected.”

 

I wonder what spiritual advice the IRO has for the HIV-negative spouse.

“I once treated a woman who was infected by her husband, who soon passed away. Some time after, she came in with her new, uninfected husband for re-testing, as she believed the Lord had cleansed her from her sin/disease and she wanted to prove she was HIV-negative. I really think such people deserve what they get, as the penalty for wilful ignorance should be damnation.”

 

I’d like to end with a little (true) story I related in this column two years ago. I hope you can use it in your next sermon.

 

The match of AIDS was lit in a small village in South America sustained by the men working on cocoa plantations. One man dropped dead of it. Then another. Then another, until there were hardly any men left. It spread to their women, and they began dying, too.

 

The elderly, the children and the few women and men who were still alive met and talked about how they would survive. They concluded they would have to destroy the cocoa plantation and plant something else.

 

They decided on sweet peppers. Why? Because the pepper plant was short enough for the children to pick. So we leave those orphaned children, dependent elderly, dying women and men, a village destroyed by a depleted workforce. AIDS eats into the heart of a country’s productive population.

 

Self-righteous

 

The AIDS researcher believes condoms should be sold by roti and coconut vendors and doubles sellers and pie men or, better, given away free with the newspapers.

I agree.

 

The question, he says, should not be “Do condoms promote promiscuity?” but “How can condoms be used as part of an effective way to reduce HIV and other STDs in Trinidad and Tobago?”

 

There is a fine line between wanting to say the socially acceptable thing and being self-righteous.

 

I used to think ignorance was harmless, that it simply demonstrated a lack of opportunity, but now I see that it breeds stupidity, and stupidity can kill.

 

Yours sincerely,

Ira Mathur.

 

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