The Zimbabwean health minister, David Parirenyatwa, has exposed his complete ignorance about the country’s HIV epidemic by claiming that there is ‘rampant homosexuality’ in prisons, and that this is making an especially large contribution to high rates of HIV transmission in these institutions.
Naturally, there are some men who have sex with men in prisons, and not just in Zimbabwe. But that is not just because men are more likely to have sex with men when incarcerated for lengthy periods with men, denied conjugal visits and other rights. It’s also because having sex with someone of the same gender can itself attract a prison sentence.
However, what the health minister fails to realize is that there tend to be very poor health services in prisons. If he had inspected health services in prisons he would have come to a very different conclusion. Indeed, had he inspected health services outside of prisons he would also have come to a different conclusion about Zimbabwe’s massive HIV epidemic.
Prevalence in Zimbabwe had already reached about 15% in the early 1990s (compared to about 1% in South Africa). But it shot up to almost 30% before the end of the decade, then dropped back to early 1990s levels in less than 10 years. The figure has remained at roughly half its peak for the last decade or so.
The death rates required to bring prevalence from 30% to 15% in less than 10 years must have been phenomenal. Did the esteemed (and I’m sure astute) Parirenyatwa notice a sudden rise in prison populations during the 1990s, followed by a profound drop, with a subsequent flatlining thereafter? Or a sudden rise in male to male sex? Or a sudden rise in ‘unsafe’ sex among heterosexuals?
I don’t think so. But I also doubt if the health minister has a clue what was going on in the country’s health services then, or perhaps now. Massive increases in HIV transmission during the 1990s was very likely a result of a decrease in levels of safety in health facilities, along with a probable increase in usage of health facilities.
Minister, HIV is most efficiently transmitted through unsafe skin piercing procedures, such as injections with reused injecting equipment, surgical instruments, etc, also through unsafe body piercing and tattooing, and even through unsafe traditional practices, such as scarification, blood oaths and others.
Just how unsafe would cosmetic and traditional practices be in a prison? We can only guess. How safe would they be elsewhere? It’s unlikely anyone has checked. If they have, they would have found it difficult to publish the findings.
It’s easy to blame high HIV prevalence on ‘promiscuity’, male to male sex, carelessness, stupidity, malice and other phenomena, so beloved by journalists and others milking the HIV cow, far too easy. But ministers, journalists, academics, and even those who have reached lofty heights in international NGOs and the like, are still permitted to consider the roles of unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices. I invite them to do so.