Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has organized an alternative 5/side soccer tournament called HALFTIME!, which is designed to highlight the widening HIV/AIDS treatment funding gap that’s becoming evident across Africa.
Can you imagine the massive outcry if someone stopped the World Cup after the semi-finals? Or if the referee just allowed the final match to be played until halftime only? Yet right now the battle against the HIV/AIDS emergency is being stalled before half-time, risking the lives of 9 million people in need of treatment.
– Dr Gilles van Cutsem, MSF project coordinator in Khayelitsha, South Africa, from “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament,” published on MSF/DWB site.
Allow me to digress here for a moment. Did anyone watch yesterday’s match between Uruguay and Ghana? Because Ghana was the last African country to have a chance to advance, the game took on a significance way larger than the Cup. The press dubbed the Ghanaian team “Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana”, a reference to the South African national team’s name “Bafana Bafana” (Zulu for “the boys”), and a tidy way of claiming Ghana for all of Africa. In an event steeped in symbolism (and tribalism), Ghana’s performance would “prove” something about Africa to the world.
At the end of 120 gutting minutes Ghana lost in penalty kicks.
I bring this up because I see a connection between the international response to HIV and AIDS in Africa and the goings-on at the Cup (and clearly, given the many alternative events and initiatives I’ve reported on in these pages, football is an effective language to address these issues).
Predictably, the Cup has shone a spotlight on Africa and has ignited some dialogue about non-football issues facing the continent. For example, the Ghana-Uruguay match was “dedicated to the global fight against racism”, and an anti-racism message was read aloud to the crowd by the team captains. Sure, that feels good, but is it meaningful?
What I am getting at is that piece of this story the rests on Africa’s ability (or not) to “prove” something about itself. The continent is beleaguered by AIDS/HIV, yet the international response is spotty, ineffective, and slow. That’s the issue that MSF/DWB’s HALFTIME! is highlighting. Racism is part of it (in the west, testing positive for HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence; why is it acceptable to see so many Africans die of AIDS?), and it’s gratifying to see this issue brought to the Cup, even if the delivery was stilted and tokenistic. But what happens when everybody goes home?
I think that’s the pressure placed on the Ghana team, cast as they were as “Africa’s hope”. There’s the sense that a win for Ghana would have meant a win for Africa, not only on the pitch but on the world stage.
MSF’s recently released report entitled “No time to quit: HIV/AIDS treatment gap widening in Africa” reveals, through analysis of eight sub-Saharan countries, how major international funding institutions such as PEPFAR, the World Bank, UNITAID, and donors to the Global Fund have decided to cap, reduce or withdraw their spending on HIV treatment and life-saving ARV drugs over the past year and a half. “Only one in three people living with HIV in urgent need of ARVs have access to it –so we are not halfway there yet in treating everyone. The HIV/AIDS emergency is not over and halftime is no time to quit! Millions of people are at risk dying within the next few years if we don’t do more now to keep donors to their promises. They committed to it, publicly and they knew the treatment is life long,” says Dr. Van Cutsem.
– From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament“
Why is this acceptable? I believe that some of the answer lies in the subtext of how the world sees Africa. Let’s not forget that there are people behind these numbers.
Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive. Before going on treatment people were actually counting down the days until my death. Now, with treatment, people see me as a person, and not as a corpse.
– Janet Mpalume, a Zimbabwean MSF patient playing in the HALFTIME! tournament, From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament“
It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of an international tournament like the World Cup, but let’s remember that while we are watching elite athletes create spectacle on the brand new pitches of South Africa, there are real people waging real wars against AIDS and HIV. And that the worth of a continent or a nation or a person has nothing to do with football.
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