We All Are a Foreigner to Someone

This photo taken on November 29, 2013 shows Cambodian villagers (L) listening as Cambodian staff (R) of a non-governmental organisation, Partners in Compassion (PC), sit during a campaign in connection with upcoming World Aids Day in Pray Kabash district Takeo province, some 80 kilometers south of Phnom Penh. (Photo: AFP)
  • Cambodianess
  • December 6, 2020 4:04 AM

World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 nearly went unnoticed this year, mainly due to the fact that the country is on red alert in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, another factor may explain this: the country’s success at preventing HIV/AIDS infections that, in the 1990s, claimed the life of thousands of young people. During those years, Cambodia was the country in the region where the HIV/AIDS epidemic was spreading the fastest. In 2020, the country has become one of the first countries in the world to control that epidemic.

Estimates indicate that 73,000 people live with HIV/AIDS today in Cambodia. With 84 percent of the HIV-positive persons in the country being under treatment, Cambodia is the Asia-Pacific country in which the treatment coverage is the highest. In 2019, there were 780 persons who became HIV positive, that is, 62 percent less than in 2010.

These excellent results are indisputably to the credit of the authorities that, with financial support from the international community, have managed to mobilize human resources and educate the population to curb the epidemic.

When infection rates soared in the 1980s and 1990s, numerous countries were slow to recognize the fact that this was happening within their own borders, viewing this as the result of a decadent lifestyle of which they pretended to be free. HIV/AIDS was seen by those countries as a homosexuals and prostitutes’ disease, a shameful disease incompatible with moral values.   

Unlike those countries, Cambodia right away acknowledged this epidemic. This, for one simple reason: The virus struck while the country was administered by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that had deployed some 20,000 Blue Berets and public servants coming from abroad. This massive presence of young men, with most of them receiving generous fees and wages, made prostitution skyrocket, triggering an HIV/AIDS epidemic.     

In this context, HIV/AIDS was regarded in Cambodia as a disease brought from abroad, and the country was able to claim that it was the innocent victim of a disease linked to depraved behaviors outside its culture.  

This led to the fight against HIV/AIDS being at the top of the national health priorities and was incorporated into all international cooperation and NGO programs.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Cambodia, it was as well perceived as being “foreign” to the country. Rightly so since, until the “Nov. 28 incident,” the only cases detected had been brought in from abroad, mainly via international flights. 

However, since Nov. 29, the pandemic has taken a different turn due to these local cases. 

The HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 epidemics cannot be compared and spread in totally different ways. However, they have one factor in common: their origins perceived as foreign. Which should raise questions. Is it reasonable, whether in the health or other sectors, to declare “foreign” what harms us since we all are foreigners to someone. This passionate approach, with a pejorative connotation, to the analysis of facts or situations amounts to an insult to one’s intelligence.     

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