Wednesday, April 20, 2005

HIV in India

Among even the most voluble Indians, who write and talk incessantly about national security issues, there exists a deafening silence about India's HIV near-epidemic.

Embarrassment and denial abound in our officialdom (as today's BBC story illustrates) -- consequently, our populace remains woefully ill-informed about the threat to them as individuals, and to the strategic security of their State. Our media too is light on the subject -- perhaps the Indian blogosphere can act more responsibly in bringing out the brutal Indian reality about the subject.

In this context, it's useful to read Nicholas Eberstadt's alarming 2002 essay that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine. Once one absorbs the implications of Mr. Eberstadt's model, one cannot but place the HIV problem at the same level as issues like Pakistan, China, Security Council, Missiles Defense, and Terrorism.

In January 2004, we attended a party in Delhi honoring a visiting CSIS taskforce investigating HIV in India. In addition to Mr. Eberstadt's essay, the taskforce's report is also worth reading.

In our interaction with members of the taskforce, among other things we observed that India's apathy to this disease matches America's own similar apathy in the '80s, when the disease was assumed localized only in certain high-risk populations. Nothing could be farther from the truth -- the full realization of this came to America only after the basketball hyperstar Magic Johnson revealed he had the virus.

Mr. Johnson was hardly part of the "high-risk" populations everyone assumed the disease was localized in. He was a virile super-athlete, and if he was vulnerable, who was safe?

So, we observed to the taskforce, while we hope no one comes down with this horrible affliction, India needs our own Magic Johnson -- a national idol (a cricketer perhaps, or a Bollywood star) who publicly reveals his/her battle with the virus. This requires courage, of course, and a heroic commitment to the nation's well-being.

We await such a genuine Indian hero.

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