SILENCE IS PERILOUS
F THERE is anything that rouses the passion, emotion and excitement of people, some of whom even shed tears when things go awry, it is soccer, and the stage is set for fireworks as the long-awaited World Cup kicks off on Friday.
Much work has gone into preparing for the 2010 soccer showcase. South Africa will host hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world, creating a melting pot of nationalities.
The preparations have been characterised by unprecedented excitement, controversial debates and a lot of media hype.
Yet it would appear that the plans for this event might have overlooked a grave consequence of having the world converge on a region that has been regarded as the "hot spot" of HIV globally.
Some are concerned that the wave of euphoria that is set to heighten during the soccer spectacle is likely to trigger a chain reaction that could see the progress made by the region in mitigating HIV transmission derailed as caution gets thrown to the wind.
Marlise Richter, an HIV researcher, activist and Witwatersrand University lecturer, expressed concern over the ambiguity in the media about the possibility of increased risky sexual behaviour as fans get into romantic liaisons and expose themselves to contracting HIV.
"The media has not yet made it explicitly clear that visiting nationalities risk contracting HIV if they engage in sexual liaisons without taking the necessary precautions.
"I believe there is an underlying anxiety about the possibility that foreigners could easily contract the virus coming from nations where the prevalence is not so high," Richter said.
She said while much attention was being given to the debate on decriminalising sex work ahead of the tournament, not all sexual activities would necessarily take place as a result of some kind of transactions since people could easily "romanticise" notions of having casual affairs with different nationalities as this could be seen as being adventurous or exotic.
The Fifa World Cup craze gripped the globe long before the first match whistle - more than 30000 fans descended on Cape Town just to watch the draw, merely a prelude to what people expect to be a month-long party in which people will engage in all kinds of risky sexual behaviour they might not ordinarily be open to.
Richter pointed out that the problem of HIV has been downplayed by the media and government, attributing this failure to give explicit messages to the need to protect the country's image.
"In all the messages regarding 2010, there has been little said about the fact that visitors may be exposed to the virus and that contracting HIV is a very real threat in sub-Saharan Africa generally as well as in South Africa. This is possibly understandable as any country would want to downplay negative things about itself," said Richter.
"However, ignoring the possibility that visitors might contract HIV is neither a rational nor logical way of addressing the issue," she said, adding that conscientising people should not be difficult.
Fungai Machirori, an HIV researcher and media specialist, said there was a need to ensure that foreigners were provided with the necessary information to make informed decisions about their sexual activities as it would be essential for individuals to demonstrate their own sexual responsibility.
Machirori, who works for the South African National Aids Council (Sanac), said that the government as a whole had shown political will and commitment to stemming the tide of HIV prevalence and that there was a new mood.
Machirori said the euphoria surrounding the World Cup would translate to a heightened sexual phase as people would be tempted to form casual romantic liaisons and make decisions in the heat of the moment.
The advocacy manager of the Aids Consortium, Gerard Payne, said Aids organisations needed to take cognisance of how the hype surrounding 2010 could manifest in people engaging in risky sexual behaviour and that programmers should act accordingly to mitigate possible reckless behaviour.
He said his organisation was engaging communities with a view to addressing risky behaviour and that they would partner with Sanac, government and other stakeholders to ensure that they move in unison.
"Against the background of 1000 people dying daily of Aids and 1000 more being infected daily, we recognise how critical it is to inform, educate and spread awareness to locals and visitors about the dangers of engaging in risky sexual behaviour," he said.
Payne observed that the World Cup can set a platform for the nation to address social issues as well, particularly engaging men to ensure that the excitement does not get the better of them because it was important to embrace the fact that South Africans "most probably could pose a threat to foreigners, most of whom come from countries where HIV is not a present or real threat".
Though he admitted that visitors would be "vulnerable" to the threat of HIV and that Aids organisations had to be prepared to respond effectively to this possibility, it was each individual's obligation to take responsibility for their own sexual choices.
"No one should claim afterwards: 'I came to this country and was placed in a situation where I contracted HIV because there will be enough information disseminated to ensure that everyone makes informed choices and takes full responsibility for their decisions and actions," said Payne.
l Ndou is a journalist with the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.