thwart PLWHA seeking help
By: Paul Salopek
Source: Chicago Tribune, United States
Date: 9th November 2005
HARARE, Zimbabwe -- When police arrested Monica Nzou for selling fruit
on a slum corner, they taunted her about her AIDS.
Nzou, 34, a shy, painfully thin street peddler and one of 700,000
Zimbabweans uprooted by a government crackdown on informal settlements,
begged to be released. She had two young daughters to take care of, she
told the officers. She was a widow--her husband had already died of
"They laughed and said they were going to charge me with murder for
infecting my husband," she recalled softly. "Then they took away my
shoes. They told me to walk barefoot back to the countryside. They said,
`Go away and die.'"
That is exactly the fate that confronts not just Nzou, but millions of
other HIV-positive people in Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous African state
sinking ever deeper into mass hunger, economic ruin and authoritarian
Haunted by one of the world's highest incidence rates of AIDS, Zimbabwe
would face a daunting public health challenge even in the best of times.
More than a quarter of its 12.7 million citizens are infected with the
deadly virus, UN statistics show. As many as 3,000 new cases surface in
the country every week.
Yet today, surging inflation, a lack of foreign currency to buy imported
medicines, and President Robert Mugabe's ruthless slum-clearing campaign
all mean that fewer Zimbabweans than ever have access to crucial
anti-retroviral drugs that are prolonging life elsewhere in AIDS-plagued
In the last three months, according to a UN report, hyperinflation has
jacked up the cost of a monthly cocktail of generic AIDS drugs from
$7.70 to $17 or more--a fatal hike in a country where the average
labourer earns the equivalent of $20 a month.
Just obtaining enough food has become a struggle for untold thousands of
Zimbabweans weakened by AIDS. The nation's farming output has been
slashed by drought and a disastrous land-reform policy. And in the
cities, the poorest AIDS victims have stopped taking their medicines due
to Operation Murambatsvina, or "drive out the filth," Mugabe's massive
urban renewal program.
Over the last four months, bulldozers have levelled entire shantytowns
in Zimbabwe. Human-rights groups accuse Mugabe of trying to drive the
restless urban poor back to the countryside, where his ruling ZANU-PF
party maintains a tighter political grip. Food aid distribution in the
cities has been restricted to keep displaced slum dwellers from
Some humanitarian groups have reacted by slipping HIV-positive township
dwellers clandestine rations of corn.
"We're seeing a flood of new referrals because people can't afford their
drugs anymore," said a doctor at a clinic in Harare. Like many health
workers, he asked not to be identified because of the political
sensitivity of the subject.
"They will lie, cheat, do anything to get these drugs," he said. "I
don't blame them. I would too."
One woman who was forcibly relocated outside Harare walked six hours
back to a city clinic to maintain her anti-retroviral drug regime, he
said. Another HIV-positive woman, dumped at a remote farm, braved police
beatings to reach a nearby well. She did this for her infected baby, who
required potable water to drink with his pills.
"The [slum cleanup] destroyed all these feeding centres for people with
HIV who were just beginning to learn to take anti-retroviral drugs," a
foreign aid worker said. "They needed that food to take along with their
drugs. Now those people are probably dying, or are at least in a
The Zimbabwean Health Ministry still offers subsidized drugs to a few
lucky AIDS patients. But the funding for such programs is woefully
inadequate. A national drug rollout announced last month, for example,
has a budget of less than $2 million--a sum that will hardly dent the
needs of 200,000 to 400,000 Zimbabweans with full-blown AIDS.
International AIDS funds also have dried up in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's regime
distrusts outside humanitarian groups. The average HIV-positive patient
in neighbouring Zambia gets $184 in foreign aid, the UN says. In
Zimbabwe, those infected receive $4.
Meanwhile, even the tiny fraction of Zimbabweans who can afford drugs at
pharmacies are finding empty shelves.
Three weeks ago, the nation's main manufacturer of anti-retrovirals,
Varichem Pharmaceuticals, ceased producing anti-AIDS pills because it
lacked U.S. dollars to pay for medical raw materials from India.
Zimbabwean dollars, which are officially exchanged at about 26,000 to
the U.S. dollar, are devaluing so fast under the nation's 350 percent
inflation rate that few foreign banks will accept them.
Nzou, the wraithlike fruit seller, tries to remain optimistic. Now
barred by the government from hawking bananas and oranges, she has no
hope of obtaining drugs to control her disease.
"Food is my only medicine now," she said at a private feeding centre
that was quietly supplying the sick with corn. "When I eat, I feel
stronger. I must remain strong for my girls."
Hefting a small sack of grain, she stepped gingerly out into the harsh
sunlight and set off to a distant plot of land crammed with other
homeless slum families--a frail woman swallowed in the folds of her
She kept to the back streets, to avoid the police.