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ZIMBABWE: Interview with J. Victor Angelo, UN Humanitarian Coordinator

Photo: UNDP
UN Resident Coordinator for Zimbabwe, Victor Angelo
harare, 30 April 2003 (PlusNews) - Zimbabwe has one of the world's highest prevalence rates for HIV/AIDS. IRIN spoke to UN Development Programme Resident Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator J. Victor Angelo on the assistance the UN is providing to help tackle the pandemic, and the related humanitarian crisis.

QUESTION: Zimbabwe has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. How does this affect the role that the UN plays in the country?

ANSWER: The country's prevalence rate is 34 percent, which means that about 2.3 million Zimbabweans have been infected with HIV and 600,000 have full-blown AIDS. But do you know the worst part? Three-hundred-thousand of the people infected are children!

And the virus doesn't just affect those who are HIV positive. It's estimated that there are 800,000 children who have been orphaned, so there are households where even very young children are caring for their siblings - or even living alone. In other cases, they live with aunts and uncles or grandparents, who may already be struggling to care for themselves. So many, many individuals are dealing with the consequences of the virus, even if they are not infected themselves.

That's the situation at present, but it's already served to shape the future. Even those who are not directly affected – though I can't imagine that there is anyone here who has not experienced the loss of a loved one to AIDS – will be affected one way or another. The country's most economically productive age group is between 25 and 40, but we also know that those who are most likely to become infected are between 15 and 25 years, meaning that in 10 years from now, the group that would have been the main source of income generation will have been drastically reduced. How can Zimbabwe be sustained?

The United Nations is working as a development partner to the government of Zimbabwe and we are also providing humanitarian assistance. In both emergency and long-term initiatives, we have identified HIV/AIDS as a critical challenge. Initially, HIV/AIDS was addressed strictly in medical terms but now we realise that it is not just a health issue. It is a crisis that is driven by socio-economic and cultural factors, and this realisation must inform response strategies at all levels.

We also have to acknowledge that the immediate consequences of the virus have been exacerbated by the current humanitarian crisis. So, while it is considered an enduring challenge, HIV/AIDS must also be treated as an emergency issue.

Q: What exactly do you mean when you refer to the humanitarian crisis?

A: Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis is the result of several things. The last three years have seen an incredible economic decline. People queue for hours just to purchase a loaf of bread at an affordable price and, because the government cannot source enough foreign currency to purchase fuel, even just getting to work in the mornings is a serious challenge to many Zimbabweans. There has also been a severe drought. The agricultural situation has deteriorated, so that even the most basic commodities - like the maize meal that is the national staple - cannot be found. This is a crisis situation in itself, but when you combine that with the devastating impact of HIV ...

In developed countries, a person might be diagnosed with HIV and continue to live a very healthy and happy life for many years, but that is because those persons have access to proper nutrition and medical care. This is simply not the case in Zimbabwe. Here, they cannot always access the right kind of food. In Zimbabwe about 2,000 people die of HIV/AIDS-related illness every week – every week!

Q: What are the priority areas of the UN, given the complexity of the situation?

A: Because of this situation, UN responses obviously had to be accelerated to minimise the effects on both the people of Zimbabwe and the country – the economy – as a whole. Our focus has been concerted on three action fronts: Capacity building, agriculture, and the impact of HIV/AIDS on women.

Capacity building includes capacity replenishment, simply to deal with the shortage of labourers. Can you imagine the impact of the virus on the delivery of basic social services? Agriculture I do not have to explain - I think the case of Zimbabwe is known. The effects of HIV/AIDS on women and girls ... I have to tell you, people often speak of gender issues as a first-world preoccupation - as secondary, a luxury - but gender inequalities fuel the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe. You cannot marginalise any one group without the consequences being felt by everyone.

Can you explain the link between the spread of HIV/AIDS and gender issues?

A: Women are both more frequently infected, and more adversely impacted, by the HIV/AIDS pandemic than men. There are a few reasons for this. First, they have less ability to negotiate in sexual relations. This might be attributed to cultural norms or physical limitations, or any number of factors, but evidence indicates that women often succumb to unprotected forced sex or dry sex, which increases the risk of contracting HIV.

Secondly, a belief spread by some traditional healers is that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV. Not only is it untrue but, as you can well imagine, it has led to the most horrific abuse of children. Thirdly, is that the overall situation has been difficult for everyone – particularly in financial terms. Sex has become a commodity in many ways. Girls have been married off at very young ages, or have sex for money or as a sort of trade-off for basic commodities like maize meal ... Women must be empowered so that they can find better solutions to their problems. And men must change too. For a man to be masculine – to be strong - does not require the subjection of others.

Q: So, where do we go from here? What is the way forward?

A: We have made significant progress in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis, even amid this most challenging situation. Food aid and other emergency interventions by the UN and international donors, NGOs and also by the government, have had a positive impact and all of these groups should be aware of their impact.

But the pandemic is still a crisis issue and remains a most complex one. Because of its proliferating nature, we have to intensify our responses, simply to keep the situation from getting worse. To truly reverse the trend, HIV/AIDS must remain a priority. We must be imaginative in improving social and health services, in communicating life-saving information and in making the prevention of HIV/AIDS central to all facets of planning – whether they are United Nations, government or community initiatives. In fact, it is only with concerted effort at every level that we can even conceive of winning this war.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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