India Uncut

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Friday, December 17, 2004

An ostrich with HIV

George Sibley, the US consul general in Kolkata, has said that India needs to wake up to the AIDS crisis that is simmering in the country. PTI quoted him as saying: “In terms of the threat posed by AIDS, India is at a stage today where Thailand and South Africa were 15 years back. It is for the country to decide whether it chooses to behave like an ostrich which buries its head in the sand to believe that there is no problem or recognise the threat and address it”

The ostrich sounds familiar. One of the reasons that things in South Africa got so bad was that their government was in denial. Thabo Mbeki, their president, famously denied that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus, and India has its own set of Mbekis. When Bill Gates came to India a couple of years ago to donate US $100 million to tackle AIDS in India, Shatrughan Sinha, then the health minister, denied that it was a problem, accusing Gates of “spreading panic among the general public”.

Why are ostriches, um, ostriches? I think that, in Sinha’s case, it was a case of misguided patriotism. Sinha, a flamboyant filmstar in his time, felt affronted that a firang should come and tell the Indians what to do, especially when he was the health minister and this was his domain. Mbeki, I venture to guess, also felt humiliated at having to take foreign aid and advice from people whom he had, for most of his life, viewed as his oppressors. (A similar emotion may lie behind his support of Zimbabwe’s despot, Robert Mugabe, who he percieved as being a fellow fighter against “white supremacists”.)

Mbeki eventually backed down when Nelson Mandela entered the fray and spoke out against Mbeki’s policy on AIDS. One hopes that, now that the government has changed, the health ministry will give the disease the attention it deserves. Or the Ostrich may withdraw from the sand and find that it’s a headless chicken.
amit varma, 4:52 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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