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Home / Health & Science

The ART of Aid and HIV – 40 years On

Health & ScienceBy Tony Mochama | Tue,Nov 30 2021 19:18:27 UTC | 8 min read


Crooner Freddie Mercury died of HIV-Aids complications. [Archive, Reuters]

“A plague isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will disappear. But it doesn’t pass way, and from one bad dream to another, it is (instead) men who disappear ...”

Albert Camus, The Plague.

In the May of 1981, five sexually active homosexuals in Los Angeles, USA, were found to have a rare form of lung infection called Pneumocystis Carinii or PCP pneumonia, in three different San Francisco hospitals.

By December of that year, that number had shot up to 275 all across America, with 121 dead – some from an aggressive form of cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma; and by January of 1982, whispers were coming in from across the Atlantic, from civil-striven Uganda about a similar wasting disease which the locals nicknamed ‘slim.’

By the time Bruce Springsteen sang about ‘slim’ in his 1993 song ‘Streets of Philadelphia,’ with its haunting lyrics – ‘I’ve walked a thousand miles, just to slip this skin, and my clothes don’t fit me no more/ At night I can hear the blood in my veins, just as black and whispering as the rain/ so, help me brother, I’m fading away’ – the whole world knew about HIV.

And millions, including on the streets of Nairobi, had lived (and died) through the AIDS experience; with people of an older generation recalling skeletal figures shuffling like sickly ghosts through our very own Nairobi CBD in the early 1990s, especially.

If 1981 was the dark dawn of the AIDS pandemic that has claimed almost 35 million lives (one/200 of the current Earth population) across the last 40 years, then we can say the early 1990s were the darkest midnight of the deadly disease, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the earliest poster boys for HIV/Aids was an American teenager called Ryan White, who contracted the virus in 1984 after a blood transfusion, and went viral when other parents at his high school in Indiana threatened to pull out their kids from the school if White, ‘with his AIDS,’ was allowed back to school.


Michael Jackson supported HIV-positive Ryan White. [Archive, Reuters]

Ryan became a cause celebre when the hugest pop star the planet has ever seen, Michael Jackson, not only stood by him but invited him to his Neverland ranch on numerous occasions.

When young White finally passed away at 19 in 1990, President George H.W. Bush not only passed the Ryan Care Act in the White House, but MJ released one of the most touching songs you’ll ever view (these days on YouTube): ‘like a comet, blazing through the evening sky/ gone too soon/ like a rainbow, fading in the twinkling of an eye, you’re gone too soon ...’ dedicated to his friend Ryan White. Michael Jackson released it on World Aids’ Day in 1992 for maximum effect.

Prince – who once disputed MJ’s title as ‘King of Pop’ by quipping “there are no Kings on this Earth, there is only Prince!’ – had in 1987 done an album ‘Sign o’ the Times’ whose title song spoke of ‘a skinny man in France dying of a BIG disease with a very little name,’ then done a dark ballad called ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ for his pal Chris Tracy who’d died of the disease.


US President Barack Obama (C) signs the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 as Jeanne White-Ginder (2nd R), mother of Ryan White, looks on in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, October 30, 2009. [Reuters]

1987 was also the year African author iconoclast Dambudzo Marechera – born to a maid mother and mortician dad – died of AIDS-related pulmonary disorders, homeless on the streets of Harare (after coming home in 1982 with a British film crew to film a movie of his book ‘House of Hunger,’ but staying behind after falling out with the director to live a fairly reckless lifestyle)

And the rock world was dealt a mortal blow in the November of 1991 when Freddie Mercury – born Farouk Bulsara 45 years before in Zanzibar (before the revolution of 1964 where Arab-Africans were getting killed forced his family to flee abroad to England) – passed away of AIDS-related broncho-pneumonia.

One can still watch the courageous performance of this genius in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Queen song, with its eerily prophetic words as he sings ‘too late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, my body’s aching all the time, goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go ...’

(in chorus, the rest of Queen beg for their lead singer to be ‘spared this monstrosity’ (AIDS))

But if it was Ryan White who shone the light on AIDS first as an affliction of even the innocent, it was the basketball superstar Magic Johnson who brought HIV into black consciousness.

Before Michael Jordan in the 1990s, the global superstar in basketball was Erwin’ Magic’ Johnson!

And in 1991, he called a huge press conference to tell the entire world that he was retiring from the game because he had contracted the deadly virus, which seemed a death sentence by then.

 Bono, meanwhile, went to ‘onboard’ both billionaire George Soros and multi-billionaire Bill Gates to fight AIDS. [Reuters]

Nevertheless, still finding himself alive in 1992, Magic Johnson took part in the All-Star basketball playoffs, and was meritoriously the MVP at the end of that tournament; which saw him lead the ‘Dream Team’ to basketball gold at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992.

However, when Magic announced he’d return to the game in 1993, many players, including his own team-mates, showed deadly discrimination by saying they wouldn’t play in a court with him. But in 1996, Magic did get to play 32 games in a final season with the L.A. Lakers ... And create a business empire worth over $ 700 million (Shs 77 billion) across 25 years.

This was the year the world got its first ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) triple dose drugs, fifteen years after the pandemic had begun.

Still, ART drugs weren’t available in Africa, because big pharmaceutical companies in First World countries like Switzerland wouldn’t let drug manufacturers in Second World nations like India manufacture generic versions affordable to Third World countries like South Africa.

In spite of South Africa being one of the worst-hit nations by the disease, it was most curiously its intellectual president Thabo Mbeki who led the claim that ‘HIV doesn’t cause AIDS,’ leading to activist outrage by the likes of Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of S.A., during the second International Aids Society Conference in Durban in the year 2000.

And it was the pestering of one President George W. Bush throughout the early 2000s, by a rock star called BONO, the front-man of a global band called U2, that would lead to PEPFAR (U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) that would eventually lead to the free ARVs – except when crooked government goons try to tax them – that have in the last seventeen years saved 17 million African lives.

‘Without the energy (and relentless lobbying by) of Bono,’ Bush said at the signing of the bill, even as he focused on the Iraq War in 2003, ‘this legislation would never have made it alive out of Congress.’

2003 was also the year that current Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu, who was then the Minister of Health, did a bit of very important ‘human theatre’ to literally catch President Kibaki’s eye on the issue of AIDS and ARVs, after her Permanent Secretary had deemed them ‘too expensive’ for the State to support across Kenya.

On this World AIDS’ day in 2003, Health Minister Ngilu simply paraded a very visibly sick patient called Jackline and her poor crying baby in front of President Kibaki who, shocked, said: ‘Just give them these ARVs,’ and it became a policy of the country, of which the Kitui governor is still proud as ‘it saved many, many lives.’

Brenda Fassie, or Mama Brrr, the ‘Madonna of the Townships’ (and one of Africa’s greatest ever musical talents) who died from a drug coma on May 2004, may have been managing her HIV-related anxiety using cocaine, instead of counselling.

Bono, meanwhile, went to ‘onboard’ both billionaire George Soros and multi-billionaire Bill Gates to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa through their foundations; then created Point Red that has partnered since 2006 with Apple, American Express, Converse, Microsoft, Motorola, Dell, Gap, Giorgio Armani, Nike and Starbucks to give over $650 million in HIV-work related grants.

Through all these efforts, initiatives and medical breakthroughs, in the year 2021, we can say AIDS has been downscaled from a death sentence to a chronic but very manageable life sentence, although it continues to hurricane its way through sex workers, gay guys, drug users, prisoners and detainees, and recently, in Kenya, through 18 – 24 age group of youth who fear ‘pregnancy more than AIDS,’ probably because they have no memories of seeing living skeletons sickly sidling through Kimathi Street, and about to slide out of life in its totality.

The plague has touched all families in this country, in its 40 years of existence, from deceased V(I)Ps to every slum dweller.

I have a cousin who’s been living with it, and taking drug, since 2008, and who is a high flier.

I had a very close relative, who lived in denial since 2004, eventually passing away of AIDS in August 2013.

A talented artist, I still have the long poem he wrote as his death note before final hospitalization, an excerpt of which we will close with:

‘We were young, we were reckless/ we were young, we were wild/ we were young, we were free, we wanted all the things that were out of reach. So we drank gin, and taught ourselves how to sin/ and then turned Life into a long sickness without a cure/ where Life is a death, and there are demons in a hospital bed. Given time, I’ll forget I ever lived, nothing more to say.’

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