So, by declaring compulsory HIV testing for citizens who seek any form of medical help, President Edgar Lungu has declared all Zambians HIV positive until proven ‘innocent’. As a matter of fact, this extends to non-Zambians who go to our public hospitals. This is not a small pronouncement; it is a declaration which will have serious consequences on the country and its citizens. Therefore, we urge all Zambians and government stakeholders to take a moment to critically think about the benefits and repercussions of the declaration made by the President of the Republic of Zambia.
“The HIV scourge has continued to pose one of the biggest threats to our country’s development. The Patriotic Front government under my leadership is up to the task and has embarked on a transformative shift through emphasising HIV voluntary counseling and testing to [compulsory] HIV testing and treatment. Yesterday when we sat in Cabinet, we had this subject ‘HIV testing and treatment’, I must confess that there are some colleagues who felt that this is contrary to Human Rights and rights to privacy. My position was that ‘no one has got a right to take his own life’, therefore this is to make sure that we must protect life in Zambia generally and across the board. So just as we test for malaria, we don’t consult you to consent, whether you should be tested for malaria or not, we will do the same with HIV and AIDS. We will counsel you and tell you that ‘you have got this problem, you need to embark on treatment’. That is the position of Zambia and its official, no debate about it,” said President Lungu.
How can President Lungu declare that there will be no debate about this issue as if he owns Zambian citizens? A President does not own citizens, not even those who voted for him. Therefore, he cannot authoritatively dictate personal and private decisions on behalf of citizens. Those who came up with the idea that HIV testing should be voluntary knew that, because of the nature and stigma that unfortunately continues to be associated with positive living citizens, a person’s mind needed to be psychologically ready and prepared for the news. You cannot have a situation where someone visits a dentist for a toothache, only to be dragged on the side and told that “by the way, you also have this problem”. Not everyone is ready to hear their HIV status at the same time. Other people will go to the hospital to check their BP before sitting an exam the following day, so how does President Lungu think telling such a person that they are HIV positive on that day help?
When we heard President Lungu saying the move is meant to end AIDS in Zambia by 2030, did someone mislead him into believing that those who are on HIV treatment cannot spread it. We are shocked because anyone who has ever gone for counseling knows that AIDS is most commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse. Anyone who has ever gone for testing knows that AIDS is prevented by sleeping with one faithful partner or having protected, safe sex. What HIV/AIDS treatment does is prolong the infected person’s life, not the life of the person they are going to have unsafe sex with. There is no guarantee that an infected person who is on treatment cannot spread the virus. Therefore, the whole nation can be on HIV treatment, but for as long as people continue to have unsafe sex, the prevalence rate will not reduce at all. To end AIDS by 2030, President Lungu must find ingenious ways and means of persuading citizens to indulge in safe sex, not just getting treatment.
President Lungu said his decision was based on the Zambian demographic health survey of 2014, which showed him that only 67 per cent of the Zambian population knew their HIV status. What else does that health demographic survey say? Does it say that HIV/AIDS remains the number one killer disease in Zambia? Does that survey have the cancer mortality rate statistics? President Lungu also says refusing to know your status is like taking your own life. But is that not the case with all other diseases? Why did President Lungu’s Cabinet pick on HIV/AIDS alone for compulsory testing? Why is government not interested in compulsory cancer screening for all men and women who seek any form of medical help?
Our opinion is that President Lungu is wrong on this issue. He must reverse the declaration before it creates a crisis, especially in the rural areas of Zambia where people don’t fully understand their rights, and HIV/AIDS knowledge is limited. The President is trying to create a new law without fully agreeing with his own Cabinet, let alone Parliament. If government spent money to consult people on maintaining membership to the International Criminal Court, how can it fail to find resources for a consultative process of such a thorny issue?
Anyway, we understand that whatever President Lungu declares never gets reversed. So we know that no matter how much the Human Rights Commission speaks, no matter how much stakeholders talk, compulsory HIV/AIDS testing is here to stay. Our plea, however, is to ask President Lungu and his Cabinet to lead the way. Since they want hospitals in Zambia to know every citizen’s HIV status, let them lead by example in testing for HIV publicly, they must go a mile further by publishing their results. We need to know how healthy our health minister is, and all others who support this move.
We propose this in order to demonstrate to President Lungu how his members of Cabinet will fight to protect their rights to privacy. Our ministers know very well because the majority, if not all, of them are sexually active. They know that being minister or President does not give anyone the immunity from contracting AIDS. But if President Lungu insists, let us give him a chance to take the challenge. Let him try this at home. Let him propose to his family that everyone should know their status at any given time. Let us see if he will unite his family on this thorny issue. If President Lungu’s family does not resist, Zambians will be encouraged. At that point, we will join our caring Head of State in pushing for this agenda. In fact, we will demand that not only should there be mandatory testing for HIV/AIDS, but all other killer diseases because without treatment, so many illnesses out there can kill, including achalasia.