At the time I was reporting from villages in Eswatini, then known as Swaziland, where I found no more than a handful of people my age – just children and old people. I wrote from Johannesburg about the day Nelson Mandela broke a strong taboo and told South Africans that his son had died of AIDS. I told the story of a grandmother named Regine Mamba in Zambia who raised 12 orphaned grandchildren. And I interviewed brave and often terminally ill activists like Zackie Achmat, a co-founder of the South African Treatment Action Campaign, who struggled with their lives to get access to treatment.
Almost two decades later, the fruits of their struggle were vividly evident and a reminder – useful at this moment as another wave of Covid makes this pandemic seem endless – of how much is possible.
Science in the form of drugs that defeat, if not defeat, a deadly virus; a network of savage, brave activists; Coordinated international efforts, including a massive investment by the US government – they all come together to work the miracle of this empty, reverberant Zambian infirmary.
We know how to do it.
In a clinic outside Cape Town, Linda-Gail Bekker, a renowned HIV researcher, mentioned to me almost casually that “our longevity is back”. When I asked her what she meant, she showed me the data: The life expectancy of South Africans, who lowered HIV from 63 in 1990 to a low of 53 in 2004, has increased steadily since the public health system began treatment and will be the 66th this year.
This was just one of a dozen interactions that I could not have imagined 25 years ago when I started reporting on HIV in Africa.
On my most recent trip, I spent time at a public clinic in Soweto with a health care worker named Nelly Zulu Virus that day: no more gloomy waiting that I saw earlier when people watched their immune systems decline until they settled for the scarce drugs had qualified.