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Desmond Tutu remembered as a healthcare pioneer and HIV/AIDS activist

Desmond Tutu shows an Aids shirt while delivering his speech during the 61st World Health Organization (WHO) annual assembly on May 20, 2008. Picture: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Desmond Tutu shows an Aids shirt while delivering his speech during the 61st World Health Organization (WHO) annual assembly on May 20, 2008. Picture: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Published Dec 28, 2021

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Cape Town - Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was not just a political activist, but he also used his powerful position to de-stigmatise health issues in South Africa, particularly HIV/Aids and TB.

Tutu sought change in attitudes and create reform in the way treatment is provided for HIV/AIDS and TB through his activism, most famously when he wore an “HIV Positive” T-shirt.

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The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) said the global Aids response lost a great champion, and that Tutu had been a powerful voice in the fight against Aids, combating denial, demanding access to treatment for all, calling out discrimination and an end to Aids denialism in South Africa.

UNAids executive director Winnie Byanyima said: “He was a leading light who brought global attention to injustice in a way few others could and a champion for the rights of all people living with and affected by Aids. Millions are alive and free today because of the path he charted and the hope he brought to this world.”

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu played a role in de-stigmatising HIV in South Africa by wearing this T-shirt from the Treatment Action Campaign at a time when HIV-positive people risked death for being open about their status. File picture

Tutu co-chaired the UNAids commission on HIV prevention in 2011 that led to setting bold global targets for HIV prevention.

The South African National Aids Council (Sanac) head of communications Nelson Dlamini said the archbishop worked tirelessly alongside advocacy groups to end stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

“He further advocated for adequate resourcing of HIV response in the country. The Desmond Tutu Foundation, which he was a patron of, continues to contribute immensely towards HIV response in the country.”

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Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation chief operating officer and Desmond Tutu HIV Centre director Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said the archbishop was well versed with the difficulties of tuberculosis having been bed-ridden with spinal TB at a young age.

Due to this, the archbishop was “particularly passionate” about TB and other communicable diseases.

“He would say how he had wished to study medicine or take up some other medically related career but circumstances made that difficult. Nevertheless, he maintained a keen interest in our work, what we were doing. He called HIV and South Africa’s response to it – ”New Apartheid”– people were being ostracised and treated badly simply because they had acquired an infection. That was appalling to him.

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“He believed that all people, especially those most downtrodden deserved at least equal if not better care, more compassion and more attention.”

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Cape Argus

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