Harare — When not negotiating legislation or debating revisions to the constitution, some of Zimbabwe's parliamentarians were found last month getting their blood drawn. They were prompted by a campaign calling politicians to get tested for HIV, in hopes that their example would encourage everyday citizens to do the same.
The logic being that knowing one's status will not only save lives, but also help destigmatize a disease infecting 14.3 percent of the country. But is the test enough? Or must the MPs now disclose their results?
Zimbabwean Parliament's lower and upper houses have a combined total of more than 300 legislators. But fewer than 114 have volunteered to be tested for HIV. And of that lot, fewer than 15 MPs - including the country's deputy prime minister and parliamentary speaker - have publicly declared their status. They all state they are negative.
At the end of a recent workday, Radio Netherlands Worldwide waited outside parliament to speak with some of the politicians themselves. Filing out of the building into the parking lot, the MPs were asked about the initiative that the Zimbabwe Parliamentarians Against HIV and AIDS (ZIPAH) network launched on the very premises of their workplace.
Alex Musundire, an MDC (the coalition partner of President Mugabe) legislator was among those who had not publicly declared his status. "There was nowhere designated where MPs were supposed to go and declare their results," said Musundire. When asked, though, he announced that his test came back negative. "But," he added, "even if I were to come out positive, I would still have declared my status."
Others were less forthcoming. "Why should people know my status? The whole issue was about getting to know my own status and not about revealing the results to the public," said a female parliamentarian in Zimbabwe's lower house who wished to remain anonymous. "What you should know is that I got tested. Being a parliamentary representative does not grant the public the privilege to know my results."
Prick and prod
Some ordinary Zimbabweans feel that their political representatives merely getting tested - without a public declaration of the results - does not go far in helping them overcome their own fears about learning their status.
Zimbabweans are quick to label an HIV-positive person as promiscuous. They have also been known to disown someone who is reportedly infected. Cases of HIV-negative spouses dumping their partners after discovering they were positive are common.
"I was expecting a few MPs to come out saying they were HIV-positive. It is not encouraging enough for all MPs to say they were negative while some prefer to remain silent," said Columbus Bero, a 29-year old university student.
Precious Banda, a nurse at a private clinic in Harare, feels the legislators need to do a little more in order to be inspiring. "I have known Zimbabwean politicians for infidelity. I think their decision to go for voluntary testing is a breath of fresh air somehow. But I feel for them to become as inspiring as they seek to achieve, they must clean up their act and start behaving responsibly."
Banda singles out Prime Minister Tsvangirai's recent involvement with four women as a typical example. Tsvangirai did not undergo the voluntary testing.
But ZIPAH's founding chairperson, Blessing Chebundo, insists the parliamentarians have played their part by merely presenting themselves for testing. "Disclosure would not add any value to our objective," he said. "I personally had nothing to fear. In fact, before I got tested I had already instructed the organizers to take whatever outcome to the press."
Chebundo adds: "The idea was to inspire others to know their status so that when you know you can act within the confinement of what you are supposed to do. The government would be better prepared to plan and confront the HIV menace if it knew how many people were affected."
Authorities report that out of a population of over 12 million, 2,000 Zimbabweans die weekly from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. The country has a total of 1.2 million people living with HIV, as least as the disease is defined by 2010 World Health Organization regulations. That's one of the highest national rates in the world
Louisa Norman, country director for Population Services International, an NGO that provided the technical assistance for the MPs' programme, was satisfied with the number of MPs who went for testing. "We realize we had to start somewhere," she said. "We are delighted with the number and hope more MPs will come."
Although the latest ZIPAH campaign ran for three days - offering the HIV tests as well as circumcision services right under Parliament's roof - politicians might continue getting tested. But it remains to be seen what ripple effect that may have on the people who do or do not vote for them.