Category Archives: Health
I just wanted to share with you this YouTube channel, which I “discovered” the other day and look forward to seeing grow. Titled ‘Afro Dance’, it aims to bring subscribers the highest quality dance videos within the afrobeats scene. I’m using dance as pain relief these days – a way to loosen and work out the knots and tightness in my upper body that inevitably accrues with wheelchair use. So these kinds of clips are my aerobics videos.
Here are two of my favourite routines so far – published in the last few months:
Love seeing a Black Woman and Black Man working together flawlessly…
…and a dark-skinned Black Woman slaying so hard.
Just wanted to share a few wonderful clips that have inspired me in the last 24 hours: women with physical differences and “abnormalities” who LOVE the shit out of themselves (as they should 🙂 ) This is what body acceptance look like. (Note: this has already been a week of dealing with ableism, racism, sexism and gender policing, which has left me weary and emotional, so I personally needed the reminder to sure up my own foundation).
1. “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.”
This clip I saw via George Takei’s fb page; a young woman who lost all her limbs and sustained scarring as a result of bacterial meningitis, but found a way to love and enjoy her new form through make-up. Now her make-up tutorials on youtube inspire people to love and enjoy their own forms too (I am against “inspiration porn”, but this is different; a disabled woman representing herself and moving others in the process).
George wrote, “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.” Such a foundation is essential.
2. “This is who I am. I’m different, and I’ve learned to accept it, fully.”
Three clips on the beautiful Harnaam Kaur. I love this woman so much. The British Sikh, appearance and body positivity activist has polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition she was diagnosed with as a child. One of the byproducts of it is excess body and facial hair. As a child and teenager she tried desperately to maintain a hair free appearance through shaving and waxing, but doing so harmed her body and did not stop the relentless, sadistic bullying that came. Upon reaching adulthood, Harnaam had had enough and wanted to just learn to love her body, as is. With the support of her incredible (and equally beautiful) brother Gurdeep, she did (he said, “As long as she’s happy, that’s all I really care about.”)
With that decision, Harnaam found a foundation of self love that continues to inspire people to nurture their own; people who see the light that she most definitely is in the world. It’s not that the whole world embraces her – she still gets stared at, vilified, and threatened both on and offline by damaged, ableist, misogynistic gender police for daring to just exist unapologetically in her body. But her foundation is so strong that they cannot crack it.
This is Harnaam’s story:
This is a Aisha Mirza music video collaboration Harnaam starred in: “fuck me or destroy me”.
And here Harnaam is doing a live feed for Cosmopolitan, telling her story, answering questions, and looking so damn cute (click on the picture to open the video link). She talks about how she enjoys her body and femininity through makeup and beard care, too:
And here’s a previously related post on my own (ongoing) journey to body acceptance and self love: ‘I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.’
[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]
This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.
Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.
The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.
Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.
In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.
To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.
I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.
These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.
But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.
I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.
Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.
Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.
So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.
2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.
Just watch me 🙂
I am in the process of cultivating a new physical~exercise routine at the moment, so I thought I’d re-post this post, ‘The Healer’.
I published ‘The Healer’ – back in 2012. The singer/artist Erykah Badu randomly followed me on Twitter in 2014. Prior to that, I had printed the below picture of her on my wall with her looking up at my red rose twitter pic, with the words “you are evolving quickly” below the rose… for no particular reason. I do this all the time – I play with images guided by my senses, with no conscious goal other than to amuse myself or make myself feel feelings I want to feel; then I print them and stick them on my walls. I started doing this during serious bouts of depression, as a way to escape my own head; now it is simply a way of life. My office walls are a colourful crazy mess – a mural of the superconscious.
So… tonight I’m imagining physical transformation: a strong, healthy body, and feeling at one with it 🙂 So that I can do what I came here to do.
I wish you the same feeling. New post in 7 days.
Who I listen to at the moment before I do warm-up exercise… puts me in a nice easy headspace:
“…Humdi Lila Allah Jehova…”
“…Yahweh Dios Ma’ad Jah…”
“…Rastafara fyah dance…”
“….sex, music, hip-hop.”
3 tracks in listening to my avant-Goddess, and mothaf***er we rollin (literally… I use an armcycle)
Still RE-ENERGISING… getting some air and counting your blessings is a great way to do that. So grateful and present right now 🙂
Links to all my posts for the Stella Magazine blog published since mid-May below – newest to oldest.
25 OCTOBER 2015
Shot completely in Vanuatu, award-winning film ‘Tanna’ tells a true story of forbidden love.
23 OCTOBER 2015
Ahead of the release of Ngaiire’s 2nd album, we’re tuning in to our Issue 7 cover girl’s latest single & performances.
22 OCTOBER 2015
We take a look at some of the recent stories about increasing female representation in parliaments across the Pacific.
07 OCTOBER 2015
Check out what Stella’s Issue 13 cover story BKB are up to now, & the fantastic new solo EP of frontwoman Nattali Rize!
01 OCTOBER 2015
Australia has been urged to adopt a new approach to aid in PNG: one that empowers its grassroots citizens & civil society.
26 SEPTEMBER 2015
How do we free our communities of homophobia & transphobia? This awareness campaign leads the way.
07 AUGUST 2015
A look at Melanesian cocoa making, as a Fijian crew sail to Bougainville for the ‘Wellington Chocolate Voyage’!
22 JULY 2015
We look at recent Pacific climate change stories making headlines. It is all connected.
06 JULY 2015
It’s finally underway! Today we take a glance at The Pacific Games – its past, present, and future
30 JUNE 2015
How foreign professionals bribe PNG politicians – and launder dirty money in Australia.
18 JUNE 2015
Filmmaker Amie Batalibasi’s period drama explores Australian South Sea Islanders history
10 JUNE 2015
An unprecedented number of women ran for open seats in the recent Bougainville election. Josephine Getsi was one of them.
29 MAY 2015
Stories and photographs of some of the women and men who joined Haus Krai 2015.
15 MAY 2015
Join demonstrations in PNG, Australia & the U.S tomorrow for ‘Haus Krai’: a call to action to end violence against women.
Dr Norman Doidge is going to be on ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night – so I thought I’d re-post this piece I published here in early 2011. It’s about research into ‘neuroplasticity’ and Norman’s book, ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’. (Side note: it gave me a weird feeling to go back and read this previous post. Like reading an old letter, or a diary entry.) I’ve actually been thinking about this book a lot lately – due to a story project I am working on.
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
One day, back in 2009, whilst trying to corral a spider into a cup for humane removal (geez, the things I remember) I was listening to a radio interview with Dr Norman Doidge. Doidge, I discovered, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, medical researcher, and author of the book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. The interview was fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, that this laymen immediately went out and purchased Dr Doidge’s book.
The Brain That Changes Itself recounts, in lucid language, remarkable stories of healing and transformation from pioneers at the forefront of brain science, in the area called neuroplasticity.Neuroplasticity is essentially the ability of our brains to change themselves. Neuro comes from the word neuron, the nerve cells in our brains and nervous system. Plastic means changeable, malleable… modifiable. The discovery of neuroplasticity, although still not accepted by some neuroscientists, sparked a scientific revolution in the 20th century: major breakthroughs have and are being made in the treatment of various disorders and disabilities, of both the physical and psychological kind. The real value of neuroplasticity comes from the idea that everything starts in the mind. As stated in the ‘Philosophy’ section of this blog, I have a passionate interest in this idea.
To understand how revolutionary the discovery of the plasticity of the brain is, we need to consider the history that preceded it. For 400 years, since René Descartes first postulated that the brain was a complex machine, the prevailing consensus regarding the human brain in Western science was that the brain indeed operated like a machine: that it was unchanging, fixed, with different “compartments” existing to perform specific functions. This idea, still adhered to by some scientists, is calledLocalizationism.
According to this idea, if a brain “compartment” were to fail, then the function that that compartment served would be irreparably lost. It was believed that, after childhood, the brain changed only oncemore, when it began its process of decline – a process assumed to be inevitable. And it was believed that damaged brain cells in childhood could never be replaced, and that people born with mental or intellectual impairments would be burdened with the same level of impairment for life. A fatalistic attitude towards the lot of people with mental and intellectual impairments reigned for many centuries – rehabilitation was often seen as impossible, not worth pursuing. The idea that the brain (and, subsequently, the body) could be improved through exercises was considered fanciful. Neuron manipulation was the stuff of science fiction.
But the neuroplastic revolution would change all of that. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, a band of brilliant, awesomely ballsy scientists made a series of discoveries that would challenge the status quo of localizationism. What they discovered was that the brain is not machinelike, hardwired to perform in a particular manner. Rather, the human brain continuously changes and reorganises itself. It changes its structure with each activity it performs. Furthermore, it changes to perfect its circuits over time, so that it is better suited to the tasks it performs. And in some instances, if certain ‘parts’ fail, other ‘parts’ may take over to perform the ‘lost’ function – and can be trained to do so.
This discovery was so important, for what it has meant for the rehabilitation of millions of people around the world afflicted with impairments, who may have previously been institutionalized, or just not given help. Having lived with stroke victims during their rehabilitation, I have seen the benefits of “brain training” that stimulates a person’s own brains ability to change and compensate for damage. The discovery of neuroplasticity also heralded a new era of innovation that continues today – new treatments of a variety of disorders and conditions, bridging the gap between science fiction and science fact. Treatments that work with the brains own ability to adapt and change itself.
In his book, Doidge describes some of these innovations, and uses the stories of various patients and their pioneering doctors and brain scientists to explain how neuroplasticity works and is being utilized – often in conjunction with technology – to rehabilitate people with conditions previously deemed incurable. Take the first story in the book, for example. Cheryl was a woman whose vestibular apparatus (i.e. the balance system, the sensory organ that allows us all to have balance at all times) wasobliterated after a post-operative infection in 1997. For many years after, she lived with the almostunbearable sensation of falling, that, apart from being physically crippling, causing her to lose her job and prior life, destroyed her emotional health. She was unable to stand, anxious, afraid and alone, in the knowledge that the condition would be permanent.
Cheryl’s lot changed when she met Dr Bach-Y-Rita, one of those rare scientific geniuses and early pioneers of neuroplastic research. In 1969, Europe’s science journal Nature published an article about a vibrating chair Bach-Y-Rita invented that enabled people who had been blind from birth to see (I’d describe how it works here, but that would take too long. Read the book for that.) Essentially the chair was a tactile vision device. Rather than receiving visual information through their eyes, the blind people received the information through their skin. One sense was used to replace another. This is able to happen due to neuroplasticity. Dr Bach-Y-Rita had discovered that we see with our brains, not our eyes. In fact, we perceive and sense everything with our brains.
This discovery and subsequent work led many years later to Bach-Y-Rita devising the contraption that would liberate Cheryl from her nightmare condition. Cheryl’s saving grace was a helmet – a hat with an accelerometer in it, hooked up to a computer, that sent signals to a plastic strip placed on her tongue – balance signals that would replicate the balance system that Cheryl had lost. The invention was successful far beyond what they had expected. For not only was Cheryl able to balance and “be normal” when she had the helmet on, but for a period of time after it had been removed! And with each session with the helmet on (they increased the session times gradually) the length of time she was “normal” after a treatment increased also. It appeared her brain was being trained to balance itself – despite the physical balance apparatus in her inner ear still being damaged, her brain was finding and forging a new way to perform that task. Remarkably, after a year of treatment, she didn’t need to use the helmet at all – she was essentially cured.
As well as physical conditions, there is great potential for neuroplastic treatments to be used to correct and treat psychosomatic disorders, and there is a chapter on this as well. Doidge’s appendices, in which he speculates about the relationship between neuroplasticity, culture, and progress, were particular fascinating to me too. After reading the book I had a hundred more questions about the relationship between brain plasticity and perception, hypocrisy, ideolology, religion, spirituality, et cetera. I intend to explore these questions further in future posts.
(post continues here.)
A few of my posts so far up on the Stella Mag blog:
Jennifer Baing-Waiko has channelled her passion for preserving traditional food systems knowledge into a fantastic new show ‘Cafe Niugini’.
Julia Mage’au Gray reflects on the joys & challenges of reviving & protecting traditional tattoo designs in a globalised world.
PNG-Australian artist & educator Ella Benore Rowe invites you to explore identity & healing through her mask making workshops.
Childbirth death is still alarmingly high in PNG. Today we look at one way we can improve maternal care for our mothers.
As Managing Director of GiDi Creative, Papua New Guinean-Austrian entrepreneur Grace Dlabik is using her talents for social good.
I will post some substantial essays here on ‘Just the Messenger‘ soon. Nothing much to report right now: writing, screenwriting, learning and living simply, as usual.
I hope you are well.
And stay in the loop by liking Stella Magazine on Facebook here.
After a year-long article writing hiatus, I wrote a piece for the next issue of Stella Magazine, Issue 13 – a profile on Nattali Rize, Petra Rumwaropen and Lea Rumwaropen of the band Blue King Brown, and their relationship to the struggle for human rights in West Papua. Blue King Brown use their music to raise awareness in their audiences about the cause – a very personal one for the Rumwaropen sisters, who came to Australia as political refugees.
In addition, all three women live their politics and values in their day-today lives. We talked music, family, faith, the magic of performance, global resistance and freedom. It was a pleasure to interview them.
So make sure you grab a copy of that one too 🙂
It’s been a while since I posted on Stella Magazine – publication went on hiatus for personal reasons, but publishing has resumed and Issue 11 is on sale now – covergirl is Naomi Bukalidi!
List of stockists here.
Online subscriptions are available for residents in PNG, Australia, New Zealand, Asia/Pacific and the Rest of the World.
Subscribe here for your chance to WIN.
And stay in the loop by liking Stella Magazine on Facebook here.
Previous issue’s cover – Issue 10:
Whilst visiting the International Aids Conference’s Global Village back in July, I was given a pamphlet advising media about correct and incorrect language to use when discussing and reporting on issues related to HIV/AIDS. Prepared by AFAO, the pamphlet contains a great checklist to help communicators avoid using terms that are derogatory, or that perpetuate myths or stereotypes about HIV. These were some of its suggestions:
“USE person living with HIV; DON’T use HIV sufferer”.
“USE street-based sex worker; DON’T use street walker.”
“USE person who uses drugs; DON’T use junkie, drug addict.”
“USE affected communities; DON’T use high risk group.”
“USE children with HIV; DON’T use innocent victims.”
Innocent victims. Such an odd term. The AFAO caution against using it, as its use contributes to the stigma around and discrimination against people living with HIV. Let us, for the sake of the discussion in this post, entertain the notion that such a category does exist. If there is such a class, what are we to refer to other victims as … “guilty victims”?
These binary judgments sound ridiculous, and arguably are. Nonetheless, a significant percentage of the world’s population believe in the existence of such categories. Implicit within the terms above is the perception that some victims of – well, anything, really – have taken some action or done something wrong, to deserve (or at least facilitate) whatever it is that has happened (or is happening) to them.
From this point of view, the predicaments people experience in life are a consequence of the choices they make and actions they take. In the case of HIV, adults who contract it from voluntary unprotected sex with someone likely living with the virus, are said to have brought it upon themselves. A child who contracts HIV from their parent, in contrast, is absolved of any “guilt” in the creation of their life predicament – they had no choice. They are innocent.
You might expect someone to the right of the political spectrum to endorse such a karmic view of the world – one in which adults are responsible, and reap what they sow. Not too long ago, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies the intuitive foundations of morality, conducted a study in which Americans were asked questions to ascertain their moral values. Over 350,000 people were surveyed, and the sample group were asked to endorse or reject the following two statements, among others:
1) “Compassion is the most important virtue.”
2) “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences.”
Haidt’s research found that conservatives endorsed both statements mildly, and equally. It is a predictable finding. People who lean right tend to emphasise the idea of “personal responsibility”. Beyond cleaning up the fallout of ones own errors, this seems to involve encouraging (sometimes forcing) people into what could be described as conservative lifestyles. Setting aside religion-based notions of propriety and worthiness, these lifestyles are seen to afford the individual a measure of protection against all manner of undesirable things.
In contrast, the response of liberals to those same statements above was stronger – the liberals in the sample group strongly endorsed the compassion statement, and strongly rejected the failure statement. They wanted compassion to be the foundational virtue of their society (evidence of bleeding hearts). Haidt said the liberals surveyed were more likely to give people further chances – and more likely to endorse the idea that mercy is better than revenge.
Of course, many liberals also espouse notions of moral “personal responsibility” and “natural” karmic law. I recall dissident feminist Camille Paglia’s (controversial) assertion that the AIDS crisis that killed so many gay men in the 1980s, was directly connected to out-of-balance promiscuous excesses – although she attached no moral judgment to this assertion. In contrast, sex positive advice columnist/activist Dan Savage scolded some men in his community living with HIV, for endangering the lives of others through what he saw as wilfully irresponsible behaviour.
It is easy to see how both the “karmic” and “compassion” perspectives could be wrong – and how they could be right. On the one hand, many of us have a choice as to how we live our lives – we can mitigate risks to ourselves, and others, through these choices. Whilst apportioning blame to HIV-positive people is both cruel and unconstructive, providing people with resources, reliable information, and encouraging everyone (through incentives and disincentives) to responsibly self-care can be empowering for both individuals and communities.
On the other hand, we are inherently flawed beings; we make mistakes. We must navigate complex environments with familial, social, cultural, economic, legal, political and psychological pressures, using whatever knowledge and resources we’ve been able to accumulate at any point in time. We have different levels of access to information, different life experiences, different temperaments and abilities, different inner and outer struggles. We are not always able to foresee the consequences of the choices we make. A large number of us do not have many choices at all.
This is why it is important to balance an understanding of personality responsibility with an understanding of – and compassion for – the complexity of the human experience. We are all frequently victims of human frailty, both our own and others. Simultaneously, we contend with larger social forces in an unconscious world that powerfully shape our behaviour. Given this volatile, uneven and unfair world we all have been born into, compassion seems to be the only reasonable response.
Strolling around the International Aids Conference Global Village, visiting information stalls from over 30 countries representing all demographics affected by HIV, I was once again reminded of the necessity of that compassion – and just how (unnecessarily) complicated the world we have created is. How societies shame people living with the virus, whilst enacting policies and enforcing social mores that unintentionally raise the likelihood of high-risk behaviour, and prevent people from seeking, or even having access to, medical care.
In many societies today, the tension between a conservative “karmic” view of those affected by HIV, and those advocating a “compassion” response – with a greater emphasis on removing the burden and barrier of stigma – rages on. Stigmatisation inevitably accompanies the conservative view of morality, of cause and effect. Not only does this adversely affect HIV-positive people – babies, children, teenagers, adults, the elderly – but the stigmatisation can actually put a society as a whole at risk.
Consider the advent of “AIDS denialism” in South Africa, famously propagated by its former president Thabo Mbeki, under the influence of maverick (pseudo) scientists. The country faces hugely complex problems surrounding containment/treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Whilst sexuality is very much a part of being human, our species historically has had a profoundly tortured relationship with its own – in many cultures and religious traditions, sexuality has been stigmatised, and attributed to mankind’s lower “animal” nature. Such notions accompanied Christian-European settlement of South Africa.
Adding to this deep, toxic shaming of a basic human impulse, Black South Africans contended with a history of racist characterisation regarding their sexual behaviour – they were regarded by many whites as rampantly promiscuous, and thus less moral or worthy. In a country where these interrelated, shame-inducing bad ideas about sexuality and race were long embedded, the susceptibility of some towards wanting to believe that a disease spreading quickly in a majority black population was not transmitted through sexual contact, was foreseeable.
The consequences, sadly, were utterly devastating. By the late 1990s, Thabo Mbeki had started to question the scientific consensus on AIDS, that the syndrome is caused by a viral infection that can be treated (not cured) with life saving/extending medical drugs. In 2000, Mbeki publicly rejected that consensus, declaring AIDS was not brought about by a virus, but by the collapse of the immune system – which he said was caused by poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. Alleviation of poverty was thus the answer – not expensive medications.
The ensuing policies enacted by his government were responsible for the avoidable deaths of more than a third of a million people, according to Pride Chigwedere and colleagues from the Harvard school of public health in Boston. They estimated that more than 330,000 people died unnecessarily over the period 2000-2005, and that 35,000 HIV-positive babies were born who could have been protected from the virus. Culturally embedded stigma, shame, and denial thus contributed significantly to the massive spread of HIV not just at a community level, but also at the highest, legislative level.
There is clearly much to be said for taking responsibility for ones actions – for enacting policies that encourage people to do so, and guide social behaviour in order to protect both individuals and a whole population. But the unfortunate example of South Africa under Mbeki shows that rigid moral judgments – particularly when unexamined – coupled with a denial of human nature, can cause as much needless suffering, if not more, than individual poor choices. In that case, moral judgments (and the fear of them) actually prevented policies that would have facilitated healthier behaviour and saved lives.
And so, when it comes to assisting people living with HIV, a virus that does not discriminate, morality-based notions of “innocent” and “guilty” victimhood are entirely redundant and unhelpful. But we do need to get the balance right. Coming up with policies that encourage and empower people to make wise choices in regards to their lives and health, whilst working zealously to eliminate stigma as something that is both inhumane and dangerous for society as a whole, is the middle way forward.
Yes, that was another epic absence from here. I meant to post this back in July but, ya know, life.