The PBS series Wide Angle, which seeks to reveal the "humanity behind the headlines," sent award-winning filmmakers Micah Fink and Andrew Young to Angola to look behind the HIV/AIDS pandemic and examine the role of the military in fighting this health crisis. The Environmental Change and Security Project and the Africa Program screened the documentary AIDS Warriors at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Thursday, October 21, followed by a discussion with Micah Fink and Dr. Eric Bing, a medical doctor whose work with the Angolan military is featured in the film.
The New Enemy
As Angola recovers from thirty years of civil war, the country confronts a new enemy. The civil war isolated Angolan communities from neighboring countries with some of the highest infection rates in the world (around 20 percent). But now, peacetime has opened Angola's borders and soldiers—some of them HIV-positive—are returning home. Unless it faces the epidemic, Angola's prevalence rate may begin to look like its neighbors'.
Throughout Southern Africa, the military is a high-risk group, with rates of HIV infection sometimes 3-5 times higher than that of the civilian population. If HIV/AIDS devastates the military, the health problem could become a national security crisis. Angola decided to confront its new enemy with a comprehensive campaign. As Dr. Bing pointed out, the culture of the military supports prevention efforts. Its hierarchical structure allows educators to reach a large, captive audience in a highly disciplined and organized environment. In addition, soldiers see themselves as warriors, and can be urged to confront HIV/AIDS as a new threat to their country, by "carrying a gun in one hand, a condom in the other."
Prevention better than cure?
HIV/AIDS prevention depends upon changing behavior, Dr. Bing noted, but like losing weight, people find it difficult to change simple behaviors, even when they know exactly what to do and are fully informed. Sexual behavior is even more difficult to change. President Bush's "ABC" plan focuses on abstinence and faithfulness, but Micah Fink and Dr. Bing questioned if this approach would be effective in the United States, let alone in the countries most severely hit by the epidemic. Abstinence and faithfulness may work for some, but it cannot be the whole answer, argued Dr. Bing. In addition, many women find it hard to insist that their spouse use a condom. As Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, remarks in the film, "One of the greatest risks for women today in Africa is to be married."
Treatment cannot be separated from prevention. Without access to treatment, people often view HIV/AIDS as a death sentence, which discourages them from getting tested and thus encourages the spread of the virus. In one heart-wrenching scene in AIDS Warriors, viewers accompany a soldier's wife to a clinic where she discovers she is HIV-positive. The filmmakers established a fund to pay for the couple's treatment, but due to difficulties in getting to the clinic, the couple did not consistently pursue treatment until they discovered they were going to have a baby. The feasibility and success of treatment is not just dependent upon drug availability, but also requires basic support, public services, and infrastructure.
Stephen Lewis ends the film with a call for greater support by wealthier societies:
Look, we know how to do treatment, we know how to do prevention, we know how to do home-based care, we know how to stop the transmission from mother to child during the birthing process with the use of a wonder drug called Nevirapine. We have the entire apparatus in place if the world cared enough. If they weren't willing to write off millions of people every year, have them die prematurely, then we could stop the pandemic….That seems to me to be such a moral default in terms of priority, it staggers rationality….I feel that it is such a peculiar set of priorities that it will historically haunt things in times to come, when historians write about this period they'll wonder what happened to us. Did we lose our senses?
Lewis's call to action is already being distributed around the world: AIDS Warriors has been screened in Rwanda and Russia, in addition to Angola and other Portuguese-speaking countries, to educate soldiers and the public at large. To be successful, education must be coupled with national leadership. AIDS Warriors calls on citizens, soldiers, and leaders to do their part in fighting the pandemic. If the film's call is heeded, HIV/AIDS will be on the losing end of a fierce battle.
Drafted by Alyssa Edwards.