See no AIDS, hear no AIDS

By Megan Williams

By Salon Staff
Published August 17, 2000 7:07PM (EDT)

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I read with interest Megan Williams' gripping piece about the state of denial about AIDS in Swaziland. Last August I traveled with my husband to Zimbabwe on safari. When we asked our guide about the AIDS situation in Zim, he assured us that despite all the press hype, he didn't really see people dying of it. At the time, I had no reason to question what he said, but now I'm wondering if this denial is restricted to Swaziland.

-- Linda Jacobs

I read with fascination and sadness Megan Williams' tale of AIDS denial in Swaziland and the devastating effects of that denial. But she refers to Swaziland as a gentle nation, steeped in tradition, and barely acknowledges the violence beneath the mild surface. I refer to the violence against women in that culture, where schoolchildren are coerced into sex (and then blamed for it), where women find themselves raped and then infected, where little girls are deflowered by men cruelly looking for their own AIDS cure. When viewed in this context, Swaziland isn't so gentle after all. The violence is in fact culturally sanctioned and pointedly directed toward one-half of the population -- not with guns but with massive sexual coercion. Given this information I'm left to wonder: Just what's so gentle about that?

-- Shari McCoul

Central, and indeed essential, to Megan Williams' story is the belief that her friend Dominic died of AIDS. She was told by one person that he died from diabetes, another that he died from poisoning and a third says it may have been AIDS. Williams decided to go with AIDS, based on no empirical evidence at all, simply because it is what she wished to believe. When a friend says people are dying of lots of things, she insists that they are dying of AIDS. Hasn't she heard of malaria, or malnutrition and tuberculosis, or even old age? The mind boggles.

According to UNAIDS' current fact sheet for Swaziland, the annual death rate is nine per 1,000 (9,000 deaths annually) -- virtually identical to the eight per 1,000 for Australia. But in 1992 the Swazi death rate was 15 per 1,000. (Source: 1993 SBS World Book). Thus, it appears that the death rate in Swaziland has fallen significantly in the past eight years. What gives? If AIDS is devastating the country, then the death rate should have increased as people died of the things they always died of (e.g., old age!) as well as AIDS.

UNAIDS asserts, without any proof, that 7,100 Swazis died of AIDS, 79 percent of the country's total deaths. So can we conclude that if AIDS had not occurred, the death rate in Swaziland would have declined from 15 per 1,000 in 1992 to two per 1000 in 1999? In the absence of AIDS, would the population of Swaziland now be virtually immortal? Or do we conclude that there is something seriously wrong with the picture that Williams is trying to paint?

-- Mark Craddock

Salon Staff

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