A DROP IN THE OCEAN OF AIDS
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It was in Brattleboro, Vt. in the March of 1987,the s= now and ice had not quite melted, and a group of us -- students in the Scho= ol for International Training's Program in International Management --were = in class. That day a new student from India waltzed in, sat down on the fl= oor, arranged her ochre sari neatly, took off her sandals, and within 20 mi= nutes was haranguing us -- all people with considerable international exper= ience, plus the teacher -- on how clueless we were about India and the worl= d . The name of this passionate and fearless woman was Anjali Gopalan, an= d last week in Melbourne, Australia, I'm proud to say, she was honored at t= he International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific with the Commonwe= alth Award for her work with "vulnerable populations" -- male sex workers, = truckers, women and children -- in New Delhi.
Because of the events of Sept. 11, now reverberating around the world, = news of this important conference was bumped to the back pages of the newsp= apers. But more people will die of AIDS in Muslim countries than will ever = die of bombs, and so I was delighted to catch up with Anjali earlier this w= eek and hear her story.
After leaving SIT, she said, she worked with African-Americans and Latin= os in Brooklyn. HIV quickly became an issue.
"I had a lot of gay friends, and the disease was becoming visible then,"= Anjali said. "And once you get into working with HIV/AIDS, it's very diffi= cult to leave it. I think you get so emotionally involved because it brings= up issues very close to you -- issues of gays and discrimination, things t= hat you've fought against all your life. The political in you responds."
When Anjali returned to India in 1994, she planned to work on other deve= lopment concerns.
"Actually, I was so tired of working, of having lost so many friends and= colleagues," she said. "But it became so obvious that HIV is a development= issue. Health and education and economics, all of it is linked to HIV. An= d if you didn't deal with HIV, whatever strides you made in the other field= s would eventually come to nothing. Say you're working on infant-child mort= ality. If HIV becomes rampant, whatever strides you make are futile."
So = Anjali founded the Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 1995. It now employs 37= people, trains trainers all over India, operates a clinic that provides me= dical services and a care facility, and has helped over 1,000 people in the= last three years.
"It's not even a drop in the ocean," Anjali said. "India is estimated to= be one of the worst-hit countries for HIV infections,according UN-AIDS and= the World Health Organization. But these are estimates, right? Because we = have no system of reporting infections -- and the government isn't respondi= ng."
India is in complete denial about the epidemic, Anjali said.
"It's a moral issue because it's so linked to sex," she said."Secondly, = there's the invisibility of the infection. Tuberculosis is rampant, so deat= hs related to TB run into the millions. We know for a fact that TB is a co-= infection to HIV, but if you're not testing for HIV, the deaths are attribu= ted to TB. And then, many of these people are already marginalized. They're= poor, or they're men who have sex with men. If you see a poor woman who is= infected, who's going to care? Where's she going to go?"
The war in Afghanistan is expected to exacerbate the problem. "Think,"= she said. "We already have intravenous drug use. In placeswhere blood supp= lies are not safe, war means transfusions. Poverty gets escalated. More wo= men are widowed. Not being able to take care of themselves, prostitution b= ecomes work for many women, and it might not be a matter of choice."
Naz's original focus was on preventing the spread of the infection; for = this it receives funding from the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation= , UNICEF and other well-known organizations. Then a little boy was dropped = off at Anjali's office.
"The uncle said that both its parents had died of HIV," she said. "The = child is HIV positive -- he's with us still. He has an older brother who is= not positive, and the family adopted him. But they didn't want this child.= We didn't know what to do with him. We had to scramble."
Anjali's solution was to open a home and offer in-patient and out-patien= t care, testing, counseling, dietary and nutritional information, yoga, rel= axation and stress management, support groups, and help and training so peo= ple can care for infected family members at home.
The 16-bed facility now= houses four children and two HIV-positive adults -- a young couple who wer= e thrown out of their family's home.
"The way it works is if someone is very sick and can't be taken care of = at home, we take care of them," Anjali said. "Then they go back in their ho= mes, and we work with the families on how to take care of them. So far, we = have found that to be a very effective model, except for the children. Now = we're beginning to lobby orphanages not to discriminate."
Traditional donors do not want to fund a care facility, Anjali said. "= They don't see any return on the dollar," Anjali said. "They see it as a bl= ack hole. And at some level, I can understand that. If you're preventing a= n infection, the cost benefit is that is much higher than if you're investi= ng in care. But I decided that I don't care. What am I to do with this chi= ld who has come to me? I can't leave him on the street."
Anjali said that when she looks at the big picture, she becomes "paralyz= ed" But the situation is not entirely grim.
"Given basic care, people are responding," she said. "They're not dying = as miserably as they would without intervention. Their families will carry = them into the care home because they can't walk, and in a few days, they ca= n walk into the dining room to eat. It's because they get so much love and = caring in a very non-judgmental way. It's wonderful how people respond to = it."
Anjali fights with the authorities all the time.
"I feel I've become this huge unpleasant fighting person," she said, l= aughing. "In some ways, I must say I think I enjoy it. If it was not this,= it would be some other injustice, I'm sure. But when I look at the kids, a= nd the people we work with, it's energizing and wonderful and I forget the = rest of the world. I sometimes think I get a lot more back than I give, a h= undredfold back of what I give."
So I teased her: "Does that put you in line to be India's next Mother Th= eresa?"
"I hope not," she said, laughing. "I don't see myself in that role, and = for God's sake, I'm not a nun. In spite of being single in India, I'm not a= nun."
It takes $50,000 a year to run the care home. Contributions toNaz are n= ot tax-deductible right now, but you can still send checks to:Naz Foundatio= n (India) Trust - D 45 Gulmohar Park, New Delhi, India,110049.Joyce = Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics, economi= cs and travel.