The world commemorates World Aids Day. Since it was first observed in 1988, the state of the pandemic has changed significantly. With widespread educational initiatives and effective treatment, people with HIV and Aids can now live long, productive lives and new infections have consistently been on the decline.
Some would therefore argue that we can simply celebrate the success and focus time and resources on the many other challenges the African continent faces. But there’s a group of people at Stellenbosch University (SU) who would beg to differ, and with good reason.
In 2021, there were 1,5 million new HIV infections globally. That is a million infections or 300% more than the 2020 target of 500 000. In addition, 680 000 people died of Aids-related causes in 2020, also exceeding the 2020 target of fewer than 500 000 deaths. These statistics raise questions about the true level of awareness (why are there so many new infections?) as well as access to medication or even knowledge of HIV status (since deaths are not declining satisfactorily).
The team at the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management at Stellenbosch University are well aware of these statistics and why we should be concerned. “The stigma, discrimination, gender imbalances, and the lack of dignity and humanity that are brought about by or associated with HIV and Aids are not cured by conventional medical treatment. That is why there is reason to continue caring about HIV and Aids,” Dr Munya Saruchera, Senior Lecturer and Acting Director of the centre, points out.
Looking at the finer nuances of the statistics, Saruchera’s concerns become evident. In South Africa, 64% of the 7,5 million people currently living with HIV and Aids are women. In wider sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls accounted for 63% of all new HIV infections in 2021. Combine this with the fact that, Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management · Iziko lase-Afrika lolawulo lwe-HIV/Aids · Afrika-sentrum vir MIV/vigsbestuur Suid-Afrika across all regions globally, men are less likely to access HIV services (tests and treatment), and a potentially vicious circle emerges. The challenge is that it stretches far beyond gender-based violence.
“The cycle is linked to so many factors, including issues of power, patriarchy, poverty, lack of socioeconomic rights and poor access to resources,” explains Saruchera. “Women are precariously vulnerable and exploited, and some resort to unprotected transactional sex work for survival.” This ties in strongly with the global theme of this year’s World Aids Day being “Equalise”, with addressing the disproportionate HIV incidence rates a priority.
The elephant in the room is of course Covid-19. The pandemic overshadowed the world for over two years, causing many other global challenges to take a backseat – could the same be said of HIV and Aids? As Saruchera highlights, “The rollout of HIV/Aids programmes was halted due to Covid-19, resources and leadership were diverted and access to antiretroviral therapy was also adversely affected.” Increased unemployment, lack of access to food for people on treatment and mental health challenges worsened the situation.
To help address and rectify these imbalances, the Africa Centre offers three postgraduate academic programmes in HIV/Aids management in the world of work. The programmes offer students a multidisciplinary lens and management science insights, and past students have included HR managers, church ministers, teachers, nurses, doctors and directors.
“Students acquire a range of skills, including critical analysis and evaluation skills, and gain deeper insights into issues such as the legal aspects of employing people living with HIV and Aids, gender and sexuality, the socioeconomic impacts of HIV/Aids, migration and its link with poverty and HIV/Aids, policy-making and implementation, programme design and evaluation as well as social responsibility,” explains Saruchera.
He believes that if HIV/Aids is not effectively managed, the stigma will continue to destroy people’s lives, infections will continue to rise as people will be afraid to test for HIV, and treatment will not be adhered to, leading to unnecessary loss of life and productivity. Importantly, the skills taught can be applied in any context where one manages people and organisations for better outcomes amidst challenges, as was the case during Covid-19.
To create awareness locally, the Africa Centre invited local organisations and schools in the Stellenbosch district community for its World Aids Day commemoration, with a specific focus on HIV/Aids stigma, gender-based violence and child abuse. Saruchera and other Stellenbosch University leaders will take public HIV tests to encourage testing as a lifestyle and stamp out stigma. Testing will also be available to other attendees, as well as TB, diabetes and substance abuse testing.