HIV/AIDS in Pakistan
A NEW report by UNAIDS has some upsetting insights on Pakistan, which has been placed on a list of 11 countries with the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS. While in other countries, HIV/AIDS cases are on the decline, there has been a worrying upsurge of the disease in Pakistan. According to the report, the number of HIV/AIDS patients in the country rose to over 160,000 in 2018. Of these, around 110,000 were men; 48,000 women; and 5,500 children under the age of 15. Approximately 6,400 died from the disease. A decade ago, in 2008, the number of patients living with HIV/AIDS in the country stood at 4,300, showing a considerable increase. Undoubtedly, the number of patients would have risen even higher in 2019, in light of the sudden outbreak of the disease in Larkana in the past few months, particularly amongst children, some under the age of two.
For years, health researchers have been warning of the potential threat of an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, but an ostrich-like attitude and inability to talk about things as they are has resulted in the issue aggravating over the years. Because HIV/AIDS is still associated with what is condemned as socially deviant sexual activity, stigma surrounds the topic in our largely conservative society. HIV/AIDS was understood to be more prevalent amongst marginalised communities without access to treatment, such as the transgender population, drug addicts and commercial sex workers, but there is reason to believe it is increasingly spilling into the general population. In Larkana, for instance, the spread of the disease was traced to a single doctor reusing infected syringes on patients, though a JIT report cleared him of intentionally injecting the children with HIV/AIDS.
The cases in Larkana bring back memories of a small village in Sargodha in January 2018 when blood screening found 669 residents infected with the virus. It was largely blamed on a thriving quackery racket, where unsterilised equipment and infected syringes were used on an unsuspecting population, many of them women and children. In later interviews with HIV/AIDS patients in Sargodha, few were aware of how the disease was spread and what implications it had for their health. Even more recently, a news story that failed to garner as much attention as Larkana stated that there were around 2,800 patients registered with the Punjab AIDS Control Programme for free medicines, hailing from five districts in the province. Most were unaware they had the disease until they underwent screenings while donating blood, travelling abroad or undergoing surgery. In a culture of shame and silence, and in the absence of a nationwide HIV/AIDS awareness programme, few know the facts about their illness or how to ask for help until it is too late.
Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2019
AMIDST heightened security, a high-profile delegation from Myanmar recently visited refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar. Following growing international pressure on Myanmar’s leadership over its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim population, the subsequent refugee crisis the most recent crackdown created, and the inability to ensure a safe climate for return, the delegation’s mission was to again try and convince the Rohingya to go back. Approximately 700,000 Rohingya escaped from the extreme violence unleashed on them by the authorities in Myanmar between August 2016 and December 2017, as they settled in squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Another 16,000 entered the country in 2018. Currently, there are over one million Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh, which is struggling to accommodate them and has voiced its concerns several times at international forums. However, it has also said that it will not force the Rohingya to go back against their will. Nearly two years ago, the two countries signed a repatriation agreement. And yet, not a single Rohingya has expressed any willingness to return to his or her homeland. It is not hard to see why the community is afraid. While the Rohingya may have been born in Myanmar, the country can hardly be described as home. Human rights groups have described the internment camps in Rakhine state, where around 400,000 Rohingya continue to live, as an ‘open-air prison’. Their movement is heavily restricted, but their plight is not new. Since the 1970s, the Rohingya were collectively and cruelly deprived of their citizenship status by Myanmar. Since then, they have effectively been rendered stateless, the root cause of their plight.
The Rohingya are not even listed in Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, and are instead referred to as ‘Bengali’, highlighting their outsider status. Given the label of the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’, they have no rights to speak of and no place to call home. Rohingya community elders have made it clear that they will not return to Myanmar until their security and dignity can be ensured. However, until they are granted citizenship, it is unlikely that their dignity will ever be upheld. While putting greater pressure on the civil and military authorities in Myanmar to stop their persecution of the Rohingya, the international community must also give material assistance to Bangladesh, which has almost single-handedly taken on the mammoth responsibility of handling a human crisis it had no part in creating.
Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2019