It is not the first time that Government’s spin doctors (Government Communication Information Service) have been forced to step in because of the disastrous PR by the health department’s officials, including our health minister.
Cabinet stated its intention last week to crank up the communication on the home front and overseas, silence its critics and show that it is in fact a caring government when it comes to AIDS.
Those who were at the massive meeting in Toronto are probably less confused than the people back home who have had to try and make sense of where the truth lies as newspapers and activists call for the minister’s head, while her main praise singer Director General Thami Mseleku accuses the media of having ‘repeated a lie to the point that you believe it yourself.”
He said that Government had never over-emphasised the importance of nutrition. “The minister has never said garlic and lemon are better than apples, bananas and spinach,” he said.
Well, Mr Mseleku, perhaps if you were in Toronto you would have also seen what many disbelieving South Africans witnessed ‘ that lemon, beetroot, garlic and the African potato is exhibited as the mainstay of our comprehensive plan.
Of course we all understand that Toronto on its own may not have been such a disaster had it not been the final straw in a long on-going battle to try and convince the president, the minister and her health department to show that it was in fact serious about tackling South Africa’s AIDS epidemic, that it cared about those who are dying.
For too long the minister and her department has unashamedly exhibited that it is less than keen to promote life-saving antiretrovirals over untested food such as garlic, lemon, beetroot, olive oil and other quack remedies.
While these same officials, especially Mr Mseleku, are quick to point out the side-effects and ‘toxicity’ of antiretrovirals, they have not shown the same diligence when confronted with German multivitamins, KwaZulu-Natal truck driver concoctions and Dutch nurse remedies.
In Toronto rumours had already started circulating in the media centre on the Saturday that the Government stand was being decorated with the minister’s favourite ingredients, but there was agreement that everyone would wait until the formal opening the following day to give the department the benefit of the doubt in the belief that the other critical ingredients such as antiretrovirals would be added to the exhibit.
But hope soon made way for disbelief and later outrage when the media and others arrived at the South African stand at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre on the Sunday at 3pm – many could not believe their eyes.
Woven telephone wire baskets filled with lemons, garlic, beetroot and African potato were on display in the bare stall. One bottle of multivitamins stood alongside a bag of samp and other nutritional mixtures in plastic bags.
Huge panels with lots of writing and photographs of the health minister, the president and his deputy proclaimed to the world that South Africa had the most comprehensive HIV and AIDS plan in the world.
By 3pm, the minister was due to arrive and still no sight of any antiretrovirals on the stand. Paddy Nhlapo, representative for Khomanani Government’s AIDS communication campaign, faced a barrage of questions from the media on the absence of any antiretrovirals.
He denied vehemently that they had been told by the minister to display the chosen vegetables. He claimed that they merely wanted to show the inclusion of nutrition in the government’s comprehensive campaign. He made no attempt to explain the absence of antiretrovirals other than to point to one of the boards listing the drugs as one aspect of the plan.
Neither did Tshabalala-Msimang’s spokesperson Sibane Mngadi when he was contacted by a journalist the day before ‘ He said the fruit and vegetables were intended to highlight the ‘multi-pronged interventions government can make’.
Shortly before the arrival of the Minister a flustered Nhlapo fetched two vials of his own antiretroviral medication and placed it on one of the shelves.
It was only later that the excuse of missing baggage containing antiretrovirals was put forward as the reason for not displaying the drugs. But this was later contradicted by the minister who said it was unlawful to ‘display’ scheduled medicine.
However, what remained baffling was why the department was unable to find empty boxes of the medication at a meeting where all the biggest brand and generic drug companies in the world were giving away anything from gifts and espressos to promote their products. Surely one telephone call would have seen the arrival of several containers of empty antiretrovirals?
Surely we are more creative?
Also, one has to question why, in the light of so many clashes in the past with accusations of people dying because they believed the minister’s favoured recipe of lemon, garlic, beetroot and olive oil could save their lives, the department chose to display the exact same items.
Were they so naÃ¯ve as to believe that many people affected and infected by AIDS would not be outraged by this display? Do they really not understand why people like Stephen Lewis think our country has lost the plot on AIDS? Or were they taunting their detractors?
My belief is that antiretrovirals are not viewed as an important part of our comprehensive plan. Antiretrovirals are being offered begrudgingly with figures confirming that we are less then keen to make sure it is distributed and lives are saved.
World Health Organisation and UNAIDS figures show that only 21 percent of people needing antiretrovirals in our country are getting it. That’s around 200 000 out of a potential 983 000. And before we present a million excuses such as lack of infrastructure and human resources ‘ we are faring much worse than countries such as Rwanda, Swaziland, Uganda and Zambia.
In a country such as Botswana where the government has communicated clearly and shown the political will to tackle the epidemic, 85 percent of people who need it are accessing the drugs.
Following the Toronto disaster cabinet had decided that the HIV/AIDS communications strategy should be reviewed and what was needed was a comprehensive strategy to communicate all aspects of the anti-HIV/AIDS campaign.
It said the impression that government did not care about those with HIV/AIDS was not valid and the problem was one of communication.
But Cabinet could not resist a dig at the media stating that it ‘noted the impact of false allegations that were made at the International AIDS Conference about South Africa’s comprehensive programme’.
It went on to say that work should be done, locally and abroad, to enhance understanding of the country’s comprehensive HIV/ AIDS programme to address any doubts about government’s commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The task is huge. Everyone understands that it’s not only about giving people pills, but it is a vital part of the response to the epidemic. Many believe that our silent president and his officials are not committed to the fight against AIDS. It is critical that Government starts communicating it’s intentions at home and stops the quackery, lunacy, dabbling in unproven, unscientific theories and gets on with the job of saving lives. We have already wasted too much time.