New government gives HIV-positive people hope
HARARE – AIDS activists are hoping that the country's new administration will make good on promises to urgently improve access to affordable HIV/AIDS treatment and services at state hospitals.
The country’s three political parties – ZANU-PF and the two factions of the majority Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – signed a power-sharing deal on 15 September, ending one of the worst periods of inter-party political violence since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980.
Despite scepticism that the three parties will be able to work together, the deal has brought hope to many ordinary Zimbabweans, particularly those living with HIV, who have been battling to cope in the current harsh economic and political environment.
Of the estimated 320,000 people in need of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, only about 100,000 are accessing the medication at public health facilities. Besides the treatment gap, government hospitals are struggling to deliver services in the face of shortages of drugs, medical staff and foreign currency.
Zimbabwe’s social welfare minister banned the operations of all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the run-up to the June 27 presidential runoff, compounding the lack of services available from the public health sector. Included in the ban were about 400 organisations providing support services to people living with HIV, such as home-based care, orphan care and ARV treatment.
Although the ban was lifted after an international outcry from human rights activists, in reality, only those organisations running ARV programmes were allowed to resume their work; the beneficiaries of other HIV support services, including orphans and vulnerable children, were left to fend for themselves.
NGOs affected by the ban are now hoping to be allowed to continue their work without undue interference and restrictions by the government.
High expectations for new government
Bernard Nyathi, president of the Zimbabwe HIV and AIDS Activist Union, who is living with HIV, told IRIN/PlusNews that under the new administration, parliament would cease to be the "rubber stamp" it had been for the past 28 years when ZANU-PF dominated.
"Through appropriate legal frameworks, members of parliament … could help improve the lives of us people living with HIV. We have no doubt about that and we are very optimistic," said Nyathi. "The welfare of HIV-positive Zimbabweans has, for too long, been ignored."
Chairman of the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (ZNNP+), Benjamin Mazhindu, shared Nyathi’s optimism. "In previous years there has been serious under-funding of key ministries, such as health and social welfare, with ministries such as defence being given priority," he said.
"In an all-inclusive government, budget allocations won’t just be the decision of one party that has a majority in the house, as was the case before. Our hope, as people living with HIV, rests on the fact that budget proposals will [now] be heavily debated in parliament."
Mazhindu added that as soon as the new cabinet was sworn in, ZNNP+ would mobilise its members to start lobbying for urgent action on access to treatment, and for increasing budget allocations to the health sector.
Another challenge facing the new government will be to improve relations with donors, to secure more external HIV/AIDS funding. As a result of the political crisis, many international donors have pulled out of Zimbabwe over the years, creating a huge funding deficit for HIV/AIDS programmes.
But it will take time for the new government to make meaningful changes and, in the meantime, life for many of the estimated 1.7 million people living with HIV in Zimbabwe will continue to be a struggle.
With inflation at more than 11.2 million percent, those on treatment are finding it increasingly difficult to afford food to take with their drugs. For those on waiting lists to begin ARV treatment, getting adequate food is also essential for helping to delay progression of the disease.