13 February 2003

AIDS activists to march on parliament

South Africa's AIDS activists are preparing to march on the opening of parliament on Friday to call for a national treatment plan to provide anti-AIDS drugs free to all those who need them. "We are hoping that this will not be another march without results, we want to make the government realise that it is about time. The process of researching and reviewing [a universal drug rollout] has been going on for long enough," Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) march spokeswoman, Nonkosi Khumalo, told IRIN.

According to TAC, AIDS advocacy groups have been left with no choice but protest action after the government failed to sign a National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) agreement for a treatment and prevention plan last year. A special HIV/AIDS task team consisting of business, government and civil society representatives was created to draft a framework agreement for a national treatment plan by 1 December 2002.

But adopting a treatment plan was not so simple, the government has countered. "This [NEDLAC] is a very long process, you are dealing with a lot of social partners and huge resources. It is impossible for government to set time frames," Department of Labour spokesman Snuki Zikalala told IRIN. Elements of the treatment proposal put forward by TAC had "serious implications for government, including cost", the government said in a statement. "As government we are still in the process of examining these issues. Therefore there is no justification for a march," it added. The government could not promise the roll-out of antiretroviral drugs to people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs), without adequate resources. "When we say we are going to provide the drugs, we must know that the infrastructures are in place," Zikalala added.

"There is merit in that argument, you certainly need to look at infrastructure. But it is limited in that there is more infrastructure and capacity in the public health system than is currently being given credit for," Dr Steve Andrews, an executive member of the South African HIV Clinicians Society, told IRIN. But for PWAs this "was a very real emergency" and a faster roll-out was critical, he added. Andrews suggested a compromise could be reached somewhere in the middle of both arguments. While it would not be feasible to immediately provide drugs to every person living with HIV/AIDS in the country, it would be a crime not to "try and expedite" their provision. "The government is starting to make strides and we must applaud them, but these strides must be put to the top of the agenda," Andrews added. (IRIN)

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