Thanksgiving and World AIDS Day an uneasy mix

Dec 42009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Reporters have a choice on World AIDS Day. They can go to the press conferences, the speeches, the red-ribbon-test-a-thons that happen every year, and write down what everyone said -- again.

Or they can go out ahead of time and explore good stories, that show how work to roll out treatment and prevent transmission is working, not working, could be improved. They can draw attention to aspects of the epidemic that public and policy makers don't talk about -- or know enough about. In short, they can fulfill their role as journalists, by finding and telling stories that will heighten awareness, prompt change, hold organizations and officials accountable.

Reporters here hit a wall though, this year as they sought information and comments for stories, during Thanksgiving week -- the days leading up to World AIDS Day. Thanksgiving -- and the days before, and the days after, it turns out -- are days off for the American USAID staffers here whose permission is required before anyone from any organization receiving USAID money can speak to the press. And that effectively made seeking comments or information -- on many if not most HIV treatment or prevention initiatives here -- a dead end.

This was puzzling to reporters, and to me, too. Thanksgiving is a nice holiday, particularly at home, when one is close to friends and family, but news happens then too -- and people work. My old newspaper -- where the ranks of reporters and editors have been halved by buyouts and layoffs in the last year -- managed to stay staffed, and to call in reinforcements when four members of a family were killed at a Thanksgiving dinner in the paper's coverage area. In short, a Florida newspaper recognized the importance of the deaths of four people on Thanksgiving Day, as it would have any other day.

The toll from the now quarter-century long HIV epidemic here is hundreds of thousands more that. More than 600,000 children live here orphaned by AIDS. Perhaps that's why it surprised all of us that USAID didn't stay staffed in the days leading up to World AIDS Day, in spite of the fact that HIV/AIDS-fighting efforts is a major focus of the agency's work.

There was, in short, little to give thanks for here, when Thanksgiving trumped World AIDS Day.