Health – where ignorance is an unaffordable privilege

Ignorance is a liability for any human being. Yet when the ignorant are national leaders, those who are supposed to represent the people of Sri Lanka, ignorance becomes a national tragedy, rendering us all victims. Minister Nimal Sripala De Silva, the bubbly minister of health made Sri Lanka the laughing stock among anti-AIDS campaigners gathered in Colombo last week with his uninformed statements at the conclusion of the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP).

ICAAP was the largest conference of its kind held in Colombo in the recent past, with well over 2000 delegates congregating on our capital from all corners of the world. However many in Sri Lanka, even in the health sector, were blissfully unaware that a conference of this importance and magnitude was taking place in Colombo. It could only be called a missed opportunity to educate the people of Sri Lanka of the dangers of not only HIV/ AIDS but of other sexually transmitted diseases, family planning and even make an opportunity to discuss topics such as homosexuality and premarital sex. Yet the authorities decided a media blanket was far more preferable to stirring up a hornet’s nest with such “unsavoury” topics.

Minister Siripala’s closing statements resonated this ignorant thinking of the authorities. In just half an hour, Sripala managed not only to embarrass himself and his country, but to nullify all the good work done by the hundreds of ICAAP delegates and organisers throughout the week. Siripala told an astonished audience, which comprised many HIV positive individuals, anti- HIV campaigners and social health experts, that there as no reason for people in Sri Lanka to be homosexuals. “When there are so many nice boys and girls why would anyone want to be homosexuals?” the Minister queried.

Considering the significance of the International Conference and being well aware of the average Sri Lankan politician’s acumen, the Secretary of the Ministry of Health or the organisers of the conference should have known better than to allow the Minister to talk off the cuff, exposing his limited fathoming of the issue of HIV and AIDS. Ironically, one of the main topics which came under discussion during the ICAAP workshops was the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. It was rather obvious that the Health Minister had no clue as to what was discussed at this international conference he was hosting. He may have also been unaware that a majority of the delegates present at the ICAAP had a different sexual orientation to that of his own. Perhaps, as International Press Service pointed out, he had no clue that there was a higher percentage of men who have sex with men, drug users and sex workers than ever before among the 2,426 participants at the ICAAP, which ran from Aug. 19 to 23.

Siripala made the proclamation that Sri Lankans and Asians are safe from the threats of HIV/ AIDS due to “our traditions and values”. The Minister drove home his point on “traditional values” by stating that the people of the Western world were still living in jungles while we were civilised. Siripala was obviously unaware that the most high risk groups who fall victim to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS are the downtrodden sections of society that include truck drivers and garment sector workers. Denying that people have sexual relations, except within the confines of a marriage, is an ignorant and dangerous approach to handle a threat such as HIV/AIDS. In this regard we expect Siripala to know better, having made headlines some years ago for his own misadventures.

First and foremost, the health authorities in Sri Lanka should start recognising the dangers of HIV/AIDS taking a foothold in Sri Lanka. India, our giant neighbour has become a HIV/AIDS hotspot with nearly 3 million confirmed cases. With increased travel between the two countries, the risk of this deadly disease raising its head in our country remains a serious threat. Truck drivers commuting goods across the country, garment sector workers, security forces personnel who frequent sex workers in transit and the sex workers themselves are at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Denying that there are people having unsafe sex is not a prudent approach to combating a deadly disease. The ignorance of the highest authorities tasked with protecting the people of Sri Lanka against such healthcare threats will only be an impediment in the fight against STDs. The time has come for Sri Lankans to openly discuss issues such as homosexuality, premarital sex and STDs. We have been hiding behind the veil of “traditional values” and refused to see what is happening in front of our eyes. It is hoped that lessons will be learned from ICAAP and the hard work of the thousands of people who made it possible will not be wasted by the ignorance of politicians.