This article was originally published on the Presidency
Premier of Limpopo Province, Mr Chupu Mathabatha,
Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla,
Deputy Ministers present,
Deputy Chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council, Ms Steve Letsike,
Chairperson of the SANAC Private Sector Forum, Ms Nompumelelo Zikalala,
Traditional Leaders, Traditional Health Practitioners and Religious Leaders present,
Mayor of the Collins Chabane Local Municipality, Cllr Moses Maluleke,
CEO of SANAC Trust, Dr Thembisile Xulu,
Charge D’ Affairs, of the Embassy United States of America, Mr Todd Haskell,
UNAIDS Country Director, Ms Eva Kiwango,
Development Partners present,
Ladies and gentlemen,
We gather today here in the Xikundu village in the Collins Chabane Local Municipality, in Limpopo province to commemorate this year’s World AIDS Day, and to intensify the campaign in the fight against the colliding pandemics we confront.
Just like the past year, this year’s commemoration is held under the continuing pressures borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting to unprecedented disruptions of our lives and the global economic system.
The coronavirus continues to mutate with new variants, causing strain in our health system and livelihoods. Even as we confront this challenge, we remain confident that the ongoing vaccination programme will save our lives and get us back to a state of normality.
For we are a resilient nation that has demonstrated amazing ability to focus our energies to tackle and overcome serious challenges that threaten to divide us as a people and tear us apart as a country.
In this case too, we will emerge victorious! In the face of this pandemic to-date we have administered over 25 million vaccines to over 16 million individuals translating into 41 percent of the adult population. We can still do more and we are optimistic that South Africans will rise to the occasion in order to meet our set target.
In June of this year, South Africa participated in the United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS where world leaders made a commitment through a Political Declaration to end HIV/AIDS and Inequalities in their respective countries.
All member states including South Africa, made a commitment despite the COVID-19 setbacks, to get their countries back on track in order to realise the global vision of ending HIV/AIDS as a public health threat by the year 2030.
That is why today we join the world in commemorating World AIDS Day 2021 under the theme, “Working Together to End Inequalities, AIDS, TB and COVID-19. Get Tested. Get Vaccinated. Adhere to Treatment.”
This theme for the 2021 World AIDS Day, is a continuation of that commitment. A commitment to work together towards eliminating AIDS, TB and the current Covid-19 pandemic.
It is a call to working together in ensuring that the right of all of us in our individual capacities and without distinction of any kind, to have equal access to health services free of any form of discrimination.
The theme also indicates that these three issues, namely, inequalities, HIV/AIDS and pandemics are interlinked. It further implies that the objective of ending AIDS must be considered in the context of a fairer and more equitable society with strengthened health systems and improved social security.
It is a theme that is inspired by our determination to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 and our commitment to make strides towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, more specifically the goal on good health and well-being of the people.
Equally, it is a call to encourage everyone of us to get tested so that we know our health status, not only for HIV, TB, and COVID-19, but for non-communicable diseases as well.
It is also a call for putting to treatment, care and support that is free from stigma and discrimination all those who test positive for any of the diseases more especially HIV and TB. Our fight is real for TB is a curable disease, and HIV is a manageable chronic condition.
When those who have tested positive take the antiretroviral treatment properly, this improves the quality of life thereby ensuring that one enjoys a lifespan that is similar to that of an HIV negative person, especially if you start treatment early enough.
This year marks 40 years since the first cases of what later became known as HIV/AIDS were officially reported. Since then, 75 million people in the world have become infected with HIV and over 8 million of these cases being in South Africa. Over 33 million people in the world have since died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the global AIDS epidemic.
According to Thembisa, which is a mathematical model of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, it is estimated that over 3,6 million people in the country lost their lives due to AIDS-related illnesses in the period between 1985 and 2020.
Unlike 40 years ago, today we have at our disposal the necessary knowledge about HIV, TB and Sexually Transmitted Infections. Yet despite this fact, HIV deaths remain high in sub-Saharan Africa, with the region accounting for more than half of infections in the world. This excludes the missing TB cases which we have to find and initiate into treatment, care and support.
We have the required tools to prevent every new HIV infection and each AIDS-related death as well as missing TB cases. That is why we should up-scale our efforts of screening, testing and putting people into treatment at community level in order to reach everyone especially people with limited access to formal health systems.
As we aim to strengthen our antiretroviral treatment rollout programme, as well as finding the missing HIV and TB cases, we need to equally scale up our prevention efforts across all levels of society, as this will be a deciding factor in our ability to curb the spread of the epidemic.
It is for this reason that our actions count in realising our vision of an HIV-free generation in our lifetime.
As a country, we have made significant gains in the fight against the AIDS epidemic despite the many and complex challenges that we continue to face in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By July 2021 life expectancy at birth in our country, was estimated at 59,3 years for males and 64,6 years for females. This is a drop from 2020 where life expectancy at birth was 62,4 years and 68,4 years for males and females respectively, and this is attributable to the increase in deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Irrespective of this decline, we are still registering major improvement from the time before our comprehensive roll-out of the anti-retroviral treatment programme and the expansion of health programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
Despite all these strides, we have suffered certain setbacks in other aspects of human progress. These include teenage pregnancy, gender based violence and femicide, stigmatisation of those who are HIV positive, killings of LGBTQI+ community , ritual killings especially people with albinism as well as continued hesitancy to take up COVID-19 vaccines.
We say this mindful that key and vulnerable populations, including People Living with HIV, continue to experience discrimination which can affect their quality of life and well-being
Unless this phenomenon is better understood and curbed, there will continue to be serious barriers to HIV and TB testing, prevention, access to treatment, care and the mitigation of impact of these epidemics in South Africa.
In the June 2021 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, world leaders expressed concern that in sub-Saharan Africa, five out of six new infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years are among girls, and that adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years account for 24 per cent of HIV infections despite them representing 10 per cent of the population, and that AIDS is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls and women aged between 15 and 49 years.
Therefore, it is for this reason that as SANAC we have been holding a series of engagements with civil society, interfaith leaders, traditional leaders, traditional healthcare practitioners and the private sector on addressing structural barriers and social determinants of the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Thus, we call for a different level of social compact.
As these social partners, we have the potential to unite and work as a cohesive force of change to improve the well-being of our nation thereby changing the course of history towards ending HIV/AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.
We do so for we recognise the important role of societal institutions such as family, cultural and religious sectors in the prevention of the global AIDS epidemic and in treatment, care and support of those infected and affected.
This we cannot achieve on our own without the full cooperation of our international partners. For we have learned through the recent experience of COVID-19 pandemic, and the inequities in accessing vaccines to build a healthier world for all and to ensure that no one is left behind. For we are in this together.
Thus, we agreed to strengthen our role in the integrated response to dual epidemics of HIV and TB as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, and to upscale our interventions to end HIV as a public health threat by the year 2030.
Furthermore, we have agreed to work together in addressing gender-based violence and femicide, and to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, in order to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV/AIDS.
This includes regulating the licenses for liquor outlets in communities, and campaigning for the elimination of drugs and substance abuse to ensure that our children are freed from this scourge.
These interventions must ensure that we also improve the health outcomes of eliminating maternal deaths in our country, and we look at other sectors of society like traditional leaders, traditional health practitioners and interfaith leaders to work together with government in fighting these challenges.
As government, we have prioritised the empowerment of women through targeted policies to achieve equity in the workplace, in senior leadership in government, and in private companies.
But the challenge of discrimination and violations against women continues.
That is why we have to empower women and girls to take charge of their sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, in accordance with every other convention that we have signed and committed to at international level in order to end their marginalisation.
That is why the report by Statistics South Africa that more than 34 000 teenage girls gave birth in 2020, of which 688 were younger than 10 years of age is concerning and a source of shame.
We cannot even begin to characterise this as teenage pregnancy, but acts of crime that needs to be prosecuted. We must stand up against this social ill and call on law enforcement agencies to track these violations.
As we commemorate this year’s World AIDS Day, we have to act in unison and be integrative in our national response to this global epidemic as we do with the current fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
This means implementing our national response through full integration of health services on HIV and TB in order to guarantee social protection for the vulnerable as well as economic empowerment opportunities for the poor majority.
The World AIDS Day is also a day to remember those who succumbed to AIDS over the years. As we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, let us not let our guard down in the fight against HIV, TB and Sexually Transmitted Infections as these equally continue to claim many lives on a daily basis.
Working together we can end inequalities as well as AIDS, TB and COVID-19 by getting tested, vaccinated and adhering to treatment.