Aftermath: one year after Norway’s openly racist public health campaign
9 September 1997 (MAHA)
OSLO, 9 September 1997 (MAHA)
A MAHA Special Report
by Moussa Awuonda
More than a year has passed since Norway’s African community rose up to protest the country’s campaign to "warn against unsafe random sex with and between Africans."
Beyond the squabbles over statistics, what has changed for African people living with HIV? Has the government succeeded in its efforts to buy out the struggle?
Moussa Awuonda filed this report after speaking to all parties involved in the dispute.—ed.
Senior official admits mistakes were made
There is a sense of redemption when you talk to Svein-Erik Ekeid, the Norwegian Board of Health’s senior medical advisor on Communicable Diseases.
"We have realised that the Board should not have gone out with the information in the way it did" Ekeid told MAHA. "We should have found out more from the African immigrants’ communities before the public statement. This neglect is now being adressed."
Mr Ekeid is an adviser to Director General of Health Anne Alvik. African organizations had called for her to either apologize or resign. According to Ekeid, his boss does not see the need for an apology: "Of course she regrets the impact her directives created. But not the facts."
Nevertheless, Eiked believes the atmosphere has improved: "We are hopeful that organisations like the Oslo Red Cross International Centre are going to help move things forward."
The Board of Health has committed to increase funding to African-centred groups: "This year African communities will get larger proportion of funding," promises Eiked., despite cuts by the Norwegian Parliament in the overall HIV prevention budget from NOK 30 million to NOK 13 million.
Red Cross worker is first in line for new AIDS funding
For the last 9 years, Mohammed has been the manager for the Oslo Red Cross International Centre. Mohammed, a 39-year-old Somali, left his country long before the civil strife. He spent 13 years in Saudi Arabia in the private sector, later joining UNESCO before settling in Norway.
Last July, Mohammed joined the protests against the Board of Health. "I am an African and I feel strongly against" the Board’s campaign, explains Mohammed. "The least [Director of General Health Anne Alvik] should do is to apologise."
In a climate poisoned by angry suspicion, the Oslo Red Cross emerged in September 1996 as a "neutral ground", after several unsuccessful bids by other groups. The Red Cross’s image, together with Mohammed’s standing on multicultural questions, gave it some credibility.
As a first step, he organised two eye-opening meetings open to all the ethnic minority groups as well as white Norwegians. Mohammed confeses he was "surprised by how little people knew about HIV and AIDS. Questions were being asked about things you would have expected that the general public already knew."
The top priority of the Red Cross project is to develop multi-lingual literatures about HIV: "The messages we have are in Norwegian and English. Nothing at all in the languages of the immigrants. Languages spoken by people from Pakistan, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have already been shortlisted.In this effort.
When MAHA spoke to Mohammed in May, the project, dubbed Multicultural Contributions against HIV and AIDS in Norway, was close to launch. According to Mohammed, "as soon as the funds are available, we shall begin."
Although he has yet to see the money, he is not worried. The NOK 1 million he is asking from the Norwegian Red Cross and the Board of Health are said to be in the pipeline.
What upsets him is the lingering effects of the controversy which has poisoned relationships even in the African community.
His voice rises with indignation: "The damage continues to make my work difficult. There are a few African groups who think I was bought by the government and who are not wiling to co-operate."
But in the eyes of OMOD, one of the government’s harshest critics, the Oslo Red Cross initiative is doing a good job: "The Red Cross role is acceptable to us," OMOD’s Anita Rathore told MAHA. "The organization has experience in health related matters and we also see them as neutral."
Beyond the Norwegian numbers game
One of the first casualties in a dispute is statistics. In war as in debate, protagonists often do not hesitate to twist or manufacture figures to fit their perspectives.
When Dagbladet headlined the claims by the Board of Health that HIV infection amongst Africans in Norway was disproportinately high, they cited 1 out 10 Africans. That figure could not possibly be correct.
Once this was pointed out, the Board of Health took a whole week to correct the figures: "By that time," says Anita Rather of OMOD, "the impression had stuck in the minds of the public."
Since HIV testing began in Norway in 1984 a total of 1 584 persons have tested HIV-positive. According to the Board, 244 of these are Africans from countries South of Sahara and 1 340 are Norwegians.
OMOD’s workers did their homework before launching their offensive. Rathore points out that the statistics show only two groups ("Africans" and "Norwegians"). "This is idiotic," says Rathore. "According to the Board of Health, there are only Africans or Norwegians who have been tested for HIV." Over 30 nationalities live in Norway.
"The danger is that other communities [per thou] [per thou] are beginning to think they are safe," continues Rathore. "They can have unprotected sex so long as it is not with Africans or Norwegians. This is not a preventive policy" she concludes. "It is discrimination."
"What outraged the African communities most is the reference of Africans as a ’riskier group’", says Rathore. An African cannot hide his or her identity in the streets - the skin colour is self-evident. OMOD maintains that individual sexual behaviours cannot be blamed on a group: there are only risky sexual behaviors.
But beyond the squabbles over numbers, OMOD considers that the underlying issues are still unresolved. "The Government has refused to come clean publicly and say it mishandled the matter."
The group also says that in the 6 February 1997 issue of Aftenposten, Dr Evid Nilsson of the National Institute of Public Health reiterated last summer’s warning to avoid sex with Africans from south of the Sahara.
"It is like adding salt to the injury already done. The government has repeated the insults," concludes Rathore. nm
Moussa Awuonda is a Kenyan journalist based in Stockholm. Last year, he covered the Norwegian AIDS controversy for the Lancet.