Jonathan works as a banker on Kampala Road. He is 34 years old. He is married to Naomi and they have two delightful kids and a wonderful middle class life. But Jonathan is busy today. Normally, he heads home at 5 pm, gets stuck in the Kampala traffic jam for about an hour and arrives home at 6 pm. Today things are different. His boss has informed him that the West African investors they had been expecting all morning would be arriving at Entebbe at 3 pm. The important negotiations that had been planned would therefore commence around 4.30 pm. Since Jonathan would be coordinating the meeting, he will have to remain at work until late.
“Do you have it with you?” Naomi asked while speaking softly into her mobile as she collects the kids from school. Jonathan slips his hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and feels around. “Yes, I do. Thanks. See you later”. And then he hangs up.
This is Jonathan’s third year on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs.) When he began taking ARVs , he took his drugs haphazardly. It was only after the doctor recommended a counseling session that things improved. He discussed his fears about ARVs. He had heard that ARVs themselves were dangerous and he felt he was going to die anyway. The counselor dispelled those myths and reassured him and he began to take his pills regularly and at the correct times.
His health gradually improved and he returned to work. Jonathan was afraid of telling anyone at work about his HIV status. Although he knew there must be other ‘corporates’ with HIV, no one had spoken about it openly. In the corporate world of Uganda you must show no signs of weakness. And so no one talks about living with HIV. The only time HIV is mentioned is when the company you work for organizes its corporate social responsibility activities for the less privileged. HIV is outside, in society. Not in your company.
Unfortunately, the meeting drags till 7.30 pm and little progress is made. Jonathan keeps checking his watch and his boss frowns at him in a subtle but pointed manner. Eventually Jonathan excuses himself and goes to the bathroom. He locks the door first. He brings out the ARV tablet he kept in his pocket that morning. He smiles to himself. This is his third year of ARVs and he knows which days to come to work with his evening pill. Suddenly he gets angry. He remembers that Peter, his boss, is hypertensive and he takes his pills right in the open yet with HIV medicines it is different. You have to hide. That way, no one notices.
HIV is a treatable and manageable illness. When people take their medicines regularly and at the correct times, they are expected to get back to work and to live long and productive lives. Every year, more and more people are started on life saving ARVs. While there are many ‘Jonathans’ at work, there are few organizations in the region with well outlined strategies to support employees with HIV and ensure that stigma and discrimination at work are eliminated.
However, advocacy to protect the rights of HIV-positive people at work are underway. December 1, is World AIDS Day. Every year, the international health community has the unenviable task of selecting an attractive catch phrase that is way better than the previous year’s catch phrase. This year, the slogan is ‘I am living my rights. Stop AIDS, keep the promise’. Jonathan reads the slogan in the newspaper and smiles to himself. It’s an amusing slogan, he thinks. It appears that people are taking notice after all.
<Dr Mohammed Lamorde is a doctor
working on several antiretroviral research projects at the
Infectious Diseases Institute, Makerere University >