By Irũngũ Houghton and Nelson Otuoma
It is, primarily, the courage of persons living with HIV that has the AIDS epidemic no longer be a death trap for millions and a primary threat to our health-care system and the Kenya economy. Dr. Joe Muriuki is being buried today. His story deserves to be known by this generation also.
Even after four waves of COVID-19, it is still difficult to recreate its terrifying impact on our sexuality, life-expectancy, and economy since that moment HIVAIDS was detected in Kenya in 1984. Joe Muriuki was not the first to be diagnosed, but he was the first with the courage to be interviewed in a Kenya Broadcasting Corporation television studio after discovering his status.
The epidemic cycle is well known by those who lived through it. Widespread denialism was followed by fear and paranoia as our loved ones began to die among us. Then came the battle to invest in scientific knowledge, safe medicines, and free public treatment. The non-availability, cost, and complexity of administrating these drugs left many bankrupt and hopelessness in the face of a slow painful death.
People living with HIV across the world were pivotal in demanding effective public health and governance responses. They challenged the moral panic underlying in early state responses like the Kenyan HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act whose clauses isolated and even criminalised human beings.
Reversing widespread violations of the right to marriage, parenthood, employment, housing, and health took at least two decades. Watching Lydia Wangechi, the first Kenyan woman to go public in the “Facing the Challenge” documentary or listening to Princess Jully’s pop song 'Dunia Mbaya' again still evokes both anguish and admiration.
These human rights violations also catalysed leaders like Joe to form self-empowerment and advocacy groups. Organisations like Know AIDS Society campaigned for public compassion, understanding and responsive governance.
Ever smiling, Joe was never alone in his boldness. Lydia Wangechi, Dorothy Onyango, Albert Lenya, Asunta Wagura, Allan Ragi, James Kamau and many others also rose above public stigma and personal fear to say yes to life and rally others to challenge discrimination in their homes, schools, workplaces, and other public spaces.
The National Empowerment Network of People living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya stands on the shoulders of these pioneers. By advocating for free and uninterrupted dignified treatment and rights, NEPHAK and other organisations ensure that Kenya will never return to the darkness of the first two decades.
People living with HIV still need your moral and financial support today. Unknown to most, they are experiencing their most recent and greatest threat during COVID-19. Managing a lifetime of low immunity and co-morbidities like cancer, hypertension and kidney disease among others could not have been more difficult.
The human immunodeficiency virus not only destroys important cells that fight infection and weaken our immune system, it also increases metabolism and prematurely ages us. That several elderly people living with HIV/AIDS listened and spoke to Joe’s eulogy at his funeral is a significant national triumph, but they still need our support.
AIDS persists today because we do not yet have enough public and private investment in public education and treatment against opportunistic and non-communicable diseases. AIDS was never a stand-alone disease that stalked us on account of our identity or behaviour. AIDS thrives in grossly unequal societies with high levels of poverty and ineffective universal healthcare systems. We must also resist invasive attempts to introduce mandatory testing and data collection without prior consent and confidentiality.
Go well Joe. Ironically, your profound national impact is also the reason a generation of Kenyans will be hearing about you for the first time. Sometimes, the price of victory is the beginning of the end of a problem that once pre-occupied the world.
While not all of us were infected, we were and continue to be affected. We honor you and others for collectively standing up to protect us.
Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and Nelson Juma Otuoma is NEPHAK Director. They write in their personal capacities. Emails: Irungu.email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Written jointly, this opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 26 February 2021