Our city has more HIV positive residents than any in the world, so last week’s news that a hospital will close due to budget cuts is like a terrorist’s bomb exploding in the middle of town.
Almost two years ago I finally heeded a dear friend’s long-standing request that I investigate Aids medicines. Antiretrovirals (ARVs) help fight opportunistic infections like bronchitis, pneumonia, shingles and Bell’s palsy.
Before then, I had been using alternative herbal treatments concocted by Patience Mavata, one of our city’s informal biochemists. The herbal alternative worked well for a couple of years, helping me get strong after my body sometimes collapsed.
But two years ago my system started breaking down because of tuberculosis. I had heard the McCord Hospital’s Sinikithemba clinic was excellent. After almost losing my balance and hardly carrying any weight on my Aids-ravaged body, I finally succumbed to my friend’s request.
I must be frank, I had been terrified of ARVs. I had heard they were toxic, they changed your body shape, and they didn’t work. But I could see that I was dying and that the herbal treatments had done their job as far they could. My friend was adamant that I give ARVs a try, so I did and went through the three-day training at McCord.
The first thing that impressed me was the way Sinikithemba was run by professionals and caring social workers, counsellors, doctors, nurses and administrators – mostly women.
It struck me as a special clinic, with staff who were tough but loving, exactly what I needed.
They helped me go to war. Being melodramatic, I told my mom in Cato Manor that the battle had begun inside my body. Aids was panicking because of the menacing presence of ARVs starting their attack.
I shouldn’t have said that because a couple of days later the most disturbing pain drove me nearly crazy. Another trip to McCord revealed that I had worms, a gastro infection and abdominal TB.
A team of professionals hit these problems head-on, adding new medication for the gastro infection and TB.
Every week I visited the Sinikithemba clinic, but as I became more responsible and stronger, the visits were less regular – just once a month to collect my medication.
I was soon the picture of health: eating like a piglet, focusing on fruit and vegetables.
I was back to work much to the consternation of my friend who wanted me to take it easy.
He calls me a cat with nine lives because of my body’s way of being able to recover quickly.
But there was still a problem: ARVs or not, I was still adamant that I would continue my lifestyle of partying, drinking and smoking, and I was not going to give up my habits.
I could justify this to myself by eating well, drinking beer with barley and hops, and sipping healthier red wine. Among ourselves as patients of Sinikithemba, we confessed that life went on as usual.
We were beautiful men, women and children, proud to be “living with Aids”. But sometimes after overdoing it, I relapsed into opportunistic infections, needing specialist help and new medicines.
Then came the news, a year ago, that Sinikithemba was closing down. The culprit was US President Barack Obama, who had donated hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out his bankers but was now cutting Aids funding below the levels of George W Bush.
We patients were scattered to public clinics and I was nervous. But in Cato Manor, I was impressed with how well run the clinic was. Yet there was an overcrowding of patients, that I had never experienced at Sinikithemba.
We were sometimes told to wait a couple of hours as our specific medication had not been delivered. In my case, thanks to a thorough diagnosis at Sinikithemba, I learned I needed treatment for cervical cancer caused by HIV.
This meant going back to McCord Hospital again, although the costs are much higher with Sinikithemba closed.
But last week, my hope for that option began to fade as our provincial health department is apparently withdrawing so much public funding that this institution may well close. (At the time of going to press, provincial health director-general Sibongile Zungu had announced that the government had made an offer to take over McCord and to run it as a state hospital).
Late last year our society was thrilled to hear that life expectancy had bounced back from around 52 in 2004 to 60 now, thanks mainly to ARVs. Locally, the bounce-back must be even greater.
Budget cuts could be fatal to many of us. We are survivors of the Aids genocide which Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang ignored, as more than 300 000 South Africans died through denialism and relying upon a beetroot-and-garlic diet.
If the Obama and Zuma governments’ fiscal terrorism is our next battleground, can we show the strength that the Treatment Action Campaign did a decade ago, and reclaim our rights to an excellent health system?
l Manzi is a cultural worker at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.