More Than Just a Number

“I want to believe in the meaning of an African prayer,” a South African singer sang to over 30,000 in attendance in Cape Town at the “46664: Staying Alive Concert” that was hosted by former South African president Nelson Mandela on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2003.

With an estimate of nearly 25 million to 28.2 million presently infected with HIV and an estimate of nearly 3 million to 3.4 million newly infected each year, as reported by the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the prayer for life in sub-Saharan Africa gives new meaning to what it means to stay alive. And that singer’s humble request is actually a prodigious petition to God and all the world to look at the epicenter of this ravaging disease.

Just as the UNAIDS statistics capture the magnitude of this epidemic in numbers, the drug mogul Bristol-Meyers Squibb captures its magnitude in its advertisement with these words: “The scope of the AIDS crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa defies the imagination. The available lexicon — devastation, epidemic, tragedy — is woefully inadequate. The numbers take on an aura of unreality.”

While the death toll is beyond our comprehension, the reality behind those seemingly intangible numbers is seen not solely in those who have died from the disease but also in those barely staying alive. Half of those infected with the virus are young people between the ages of 15 to 24, and of that segment of the population statistics are showing that now more women than men are infected. In October of 1998 the Boston Globe reported that within five years, 61 of every 1,000 children born in the countries of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland won’t reach their first birthday. The United Nations estimated at that time that by the year 2001 would be 13 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. Today five years later the United Nations Children’s Fund reports that more than 11 million children of sub-Saharan Africa have lost at least one parent to AIDS. By the end of the decade the number is likely to double if something is not done to stem the devastation. Therefore, I can understand the South African singer when she says, “I want to believe in an African prayer.”

While the death toll is beyond our comprehension, the reality behind those seemingly intangible numbers is seen not solely in those who have died from the disease but also in those barely staying alive. Half of those infected with the virus are young people between the ages of 15 to 24 . . .

The inception of World AIDS Day began, many would say, when the world was in need of prayer. In 1988, the World Health Organization designated Dec. 1 as the day to pause and reflect on the magnitude of the devastating effect this disease is having on the global community. Because there is still neither a vaccine nor a cure, and the new HIV infection rate is being matched in some countries and in some communities by its death toll, a prayer is sometimes all a person has in the face of an epidemic that shows no sign of abating.

In African-American communities across this country the disease still shows no sign of abating. One of the reasons is the shame and stigma associated with the AIDS virus, so most African Americans who have died because of the virus dared not mention they had it. Those black cadaverous bodies have been hid from the community and each other. Although we in these black communities averted our eyes pretending we did not see them, we all saw them. We all knew them, and we all in silence watched them die because we have still done nothing to abate the epidemic.

In my pastor’s study one day, I heard a faint knock on my door. I yelled to come in, but the person just stood there on the other side of the door from me. Thinking it was one of the kids from Sunday School horsing around, I continued with my work. Then, minutes later, again the faint knock. Annoyed and now certain that it was one of the kids, I rose from my seat with the intention to tell the kid to stop. I swung open the door and to my surprise there stood in front of me a vaguely familiar image. Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions were splattered about on her face and neck. Her eyes were sunken with dark rings, and she was 40 pounds thinner. A one-time big and vibrant Afro (the community had nicknamed her Sister Angela Davis) had been transmuted into straight, willowy thin hair, and was almost gone. I greeted her as if she were a stranger. When she told me who she was, I had to fight back the tears.

Desperate to see me because she heard I did not discriminate in doing funerals for those who died with AIDS, Bernice (not her real name) felt her prayer could be answered. Bernice wanted to set up her funeral arrangements. And we did. Approximately three months from the day I heard her faint knocks on the door Bernice died.

In 1996, many felt their prayers to stay alive were answered when a medical breakthrough occurred with the introduction of protease inhibitors. The death rate dramatically declined and the fear and urgency associated with the crisis also abated some, creating the illusion that if a cure isn’t at hand at least medicines are. And, consequently the number of those newly infected has climbed as people’s safer sex practices have waned.

[M]ost African Americans who have died because of the virus dared not mention they had it. Those black cadaverous bodies have been hid from the community and each other. Although we in these black communities averted our eyes pretending we did not see them, we all saw them.

>The tenacity of this disease is best understood not by a death toll that reduces people to numbers, but instead how it moves along the fault lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation in society.

The U.S. is one country that has the best of medical resources available. According to UNAIDS, there are an estimated 790,000 to 1.2 million people infected with HIV in this country, with an estimate of nearly 36,000 to 54,000 newly infected each year. The annual death toll due to the virus expected to soar from 12,000 to 18,000. However, out of this pool, proportionately more people of color are infected than whites; more women of color than white women; and more poor people than non-poor.

Racism contributes to the high rate of AIDS among young African-American men because there is no Gay Men’s Health Crisis for African Americans. While gay health care centers open their doors to all gay men, these traditionally white organizations have failed to tailor their messages and outreach services to men of color. And while white gay men may feel the AIDS crisis in the African- American community is solely a black concern, white gay men must also be reminded that the AIDS crisis in the African-American community is their concern because they too have sex with black men.

Poverty also helps HIV spread throughout the black community. With the high cost of life-saving drugs often coupled with the problem of homelessness, mere survival for these young men takes precedence over quality of life. Also, selling their bodies for drugs, a hot meal, temporary lodging or a quick illusion of love lures many young gay black men to engage in risky and unprotected sex.

Today in the U.S. the definition of “risk group” has expanded from gay men, to IV drug users, to poor people, to, now, anyone.

But the number of those newly inflected with the virus soar not only because of how the fault lines moves through the disease, but also because of bad theology. The Vatican’s defense against any form of artificial contraception like condoms fosters the genocide of a people.

But the number of those newly inflected with the virus soar not only because of how the fault lines moves through the disease, but also because of bad theology. The Vatican’s defense against any form of artificial contraception like condoms fosters the genocide of a people. The Vatican sees fidelity, chastity, and abstinence as the best and holiest way to stop the spread of AIDS. A Vatican spokesperson told a newspaper in Rome that in a ” . . . pan-sexualist society based on polices that foster immoral and hedonistic lifestyles and behaviors . . . AIDS is a pathology of the spirit.”

We too often hear only the numbers of those dying or dead from the disease and unfortunately do not fully comprehend the magnitude of how lives are continually being lost.

At the “46664: Staying Alive Concert,” Mandela told the audience: “AIDS is a human rights issue. 46664 was my prison number for 18 years on Robben Island. I was to be reduced to that number. Many people with AIDS are being reduced to a number unless we act. Together we can fight AIDS and secure a better future for everyone.”

My prayer as we enter the season of Advent in the Christian calendar is one of healing. To heal not only those infected with the disease, but also to heal the apathy and lethargy that has come to surround the disease and allow more lives to be lost.

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