Norway. Board of Health issues racist and sexist warning to white population linking Africans and HIV
1 August 1996 (MAHA)
OSLO, 1 August 1996 (MAHA)
Norway’s African community united in anger
Norway’s African community united in angry protest following a press conference held in early July by Norwegian authorities to warn the white population that Africans are potential HIV carriers.
"Africans have been blamed for too many things," stated Helen of the African Forum in Norway. "This was the last straw."
It took less than a week to organize a demonstration outside the Norwegian Board of Health. Two hundred Africans and their allies gathered to demand a public apology from the government. "Africans in Norway are outraged by the Health Department’s racist statements about Africans being responsible for spreading HIV and AIDS in Norway," read a statement by the protesters. The group considers the official "warning to [white] Norwegians against having sex with Africans" to be "blatant discrimination at the governmental level."
"Any health worker knows that AIDS is not limited to a particular group or colour," explains Helen. Yet, she points out, the warning was to Norwegians only, as if government concern is limited to its own white citizens.
Of course the announcement has fanned the flames of media racism. Worse, when newspapers headlined a 10% HIV infection rate for Africans in Norway, the Board of Health said nothing. The actual Board of Health figure is around two percent.
As of 1995, 1537 people had been diagnosed as HIV+ in Norway, including 244 Africans. Of these only 150 are still in the country. The others were either deported immediately or denied permits and thereby forced to return home.
Norway’s African community numbers about 12 000 in a country of 4.3 million. "We are dispersed and divided by country of origin," stated Helen. "But this time we are united as Africans."
The government statement read: "[The Board] warns Norwegian women and men against having unprotected sex with Africans, especially those that come from south of the Sahara." Public health officials cited two cases of African men supposedly responsible for the infection of six Norwegian women and new studies which "revealed" that a number of Norwegian women have sex with African men.
The officials did not mention that one of the men in question is dead and the other may have been deported.
Also, such a "warning" to Norwegians is an implicit threat to Africans. Norway passed an infectious disease control law (Smittevernloven) last year. Such laws in Sweden, Denmark, and elsewhere have disproportionately targetted people of colour. This law, coupled with reports of compulsory testing, denial of health care to illegals, and deportation amount to a formidable apparatus of repression.
Despite previous collaboration with the Board, no African community group was contacted about the impending announcement. And despite a second public protest, broad support from other AIDS organizations - and even a few political parties - authorities have refused to meet with the protesters.
Board Director Anne Alvik has stated publicly that she stands by the warning. The protestors have called for her resignation if there is no public apology for the warning. Until demands (see box, p.3) are met, the protestors "will not cooperate" with the Board.
The conflict has put in jeopardy over three years of AIDS organizing in the African community. Since 1993, several African HIV groups and representatives of the Board of Health had been meeting regularly to develop strategies to bring HIV+ immigrants together. Intense ground work led to the founding of the Norwegian Immigration Group of People Living with HIV/AIDS (INPluss), which today has 16 members. "We would have been 19," explained a member of INPluss, "but two have been deported and one went underground to avoid deportation."
At the 1995 Third European Meeting on Ethnic Minorities, Migrants and AIDS, Helen stated: "I think it is the right time to face the reality that HIV/AIDS is among us. We must tackle it as a united immigrant community." Had it been listening, the Norwegian Board of Health might have understood it would not get away with the scapegoating of an entire community. Not this time. M
Where they stand:
Since the press conference, a broad coalition of Africans of various countries and backgrounds has come together. Excerpts of their demands and resolutions:
- We still demand a public apology from the State.
- If no apology is given, we demand the resignation of the Health Director.
- The Africans have never been against cooperation with the Board of Health regarding HIV prevention. But the way the State came out with the press release has caused us to lose our trust.
- Without adequate knowledge, the Board of Health has stepped on a minority group. This will have both social and economic consequences.
- We will use all legal and diplomatic means, including demonstrations, to see that justice is achieved
- We stand firm that we shall not cooperate with the Norwegian Board of Health until our demands are met. This, however, does not mean that we are not going to cooperate with others working in the field of HIV/AIDS.
What you can do:
- Send or fax letters of polite but strong protest to the Norwegian Board of Health: Statens Helsetilsyn, PO Box 8129 Dep, Oslo, Norway, Phone: +47 22 24 90 90, Fax: +47 22 24 27 67.
- n Don’t forget to send a copy to the Paris office of Migrants against HIV/AIDS.
- n Contact local AIDS and antiracist organizations in your area
- n Send a copy of this newsletter to a sympathetic journalist
- n If you are a lawyer interested in this case, please contact Migrants against HIV/AIDS
- n The campaign needs your financial support for legal fees, printing, etc. Send your donations to: AFRIKANERE I NORGE, Sparebanken Nor, Account 1607 40 33 753.
An astonishingly bad idea
by Mary Haour-Knipe
There is bad news coming from Norway. Health department authorities have decided to stress a risk of HIV transmission between Norwegian heterosexuals and African immigrants in the country. A political adviser at the Local Government Ministry, apparently defending the authorities’ efforts to focus on Africans and AIDS, commented that "nobody has anything to gain from seeing difficult social issues being swept under the carpet."
The social issues are indeed difficult. But there are at least three main reasons that stressing such a link is an astonishingly bad idea.
First, the epidemiological argument is a very difficult one to handle. If one thinks only in terms of groups, and in terms of abstract calculations of risk, there is unarguably more risk of encountering HIV if one sleeps with - or uses injections material of - somebody from a group particularly affected. But there are several problems with such reasoning.
In the case at hand, epidemiological data has been released concerning Africans in Norway, but what is to assure that the epidemiological data is accurate? There are numerous technical and human rights reasons that it may not be entirely reliable. To start with, in order to properly compare the two groups, one would have to make sure all Norwegians, and all Africans in Norway were tested. This is clearly an impossible task.
Moreover, the chances for misuse of such data are extremely high since it may be used to support xenophobic arguments against foreigners. Perhaps most importantly, such thinking far too quickly confuses the group and the individual. It assumes that all members of a group are the same. In this case, it assumes that all sub-Sahara Africans are the same, whereas even a brief glance at a map shows that a great many countries are involved. Minimal sense of social science would indicate that an entire continent contains different cultures, heritages, economies, and relations with other countries. And a minimum HIV/AIDS culture indicates that sub-Sarahan Africa has many different AIDS epidemics.
The second reason that stressing such a link is an astonishingly bad idea is that singling out one group is stigmatizing. It encourages the idea, which many had thought sucessfully rejected long ago, that it is not acts or behaviours that transmit HIV, but what somebody is. In the case of Africans in Norway, which concerns people of a skin colour different from the majority of the population, it also raises the ugly head of raicsm.
The risk in stigmatising any group is of alienating whole populations. We have known from the beginning of the epidemic that such finger-pointing succeeds only in making people defensive and angry. It makes them less likely to listen to prevention messages, or to feel well-disposed toward using condoms with their sexual partners. When they are migrants, it makes them feel that they are decidedly unwelcome in the country in which they are living. It makes them wonder how they can possibly receive supportive care, or even consideration.
The third reason that stressing a link between AIDS and Africans in Norway is an astonishingly bad idea is that it is dangerous to the host population. It suggests that HIV and AIDS only concern Africans, or that if I am Norwegian, "it’s not my problem." It creates a false sense of security, giving the illusion that anyone who is outside the target group is probably safe, that precautions are thus not necessary.
That this issue is coming from Norway is especially distressing, since Norway had been known for its attitude of equality and justice. It leaves the door open to the idea that equality and justice may not be aplied equally when it comes to foreigners. At the very least, the matter has been poorly handled, as attested by protest demonstrations within the country.
The issue does not just concern Africans in Norway, it concerns all of us, migrants or not, and wherever we are. It is not only, as has been apparently implied, Norwegian women who have had sexual relations with African men who should "be careful", who should avail themselves of testing - and of counselling. Nor is it just Africans who think they might be HIV positive who should use protection. Condoms should be used for any sexual relations other than those between mutually monogamous HIV negative partners.
How many times does it have to be said?
It is not complicated. And it has nothing to do with being a migrant.
Mary Haour-Knipe is a medical sociologist. She has been working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention for migrants and ethnic minorities since 1989. Her latest publication, co-edited with Richard Rector, is Crossing Borders: Migration, Ethnicity and AIDS, forthcoming in October, London: Taylor and Francis.