How 'It’s a Sin' Resonates With What I Saw of HIV/AIDS Growing Up in 1980s Zimbabwe
Takudzwa Mukiwa from the Terrence Higgins Trust writes on the stigma he saw growing up in Zimbabwe.
Takudzwa Mukiwa is the head of health programmes at UK-based HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust. He’s passionate about utilising technology to reach more people with up-to-date information about HIV, including those from African communities like his own.
That’s because he knows that the myths and misinformation surrounding HIV still costs lives.
Here, Mukiwa writes about TV show It's a Sin, which illustrates the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on a group of friends in 1980s London, and how it compares to his own experiences at the time in Zimbabwe. For Mukiwa, the show highlights how far the world has come in tackling this devastating illness — and sparks conversations about what more there is to do.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
A new drama about the AIDS crisis has been taking the UK by storm. The grand finale of It’s a Sin takes place on Friday, having premiered in the US on Thursday. From writer Russell T Davies, it’s the story of a group of gay friends in 1980s London as their lives are devastated by the emergence of a mystery illness.
Just short of 8,000 miles away in the late '80s and early '90s, I was a little kid growing up on a farm in Esigodini in rural Zimbabwe as our own AIDS crisis intensified. It’s A Sin shows the brutal impact of AIDS on gay men and their allies left to fend for themselves while the majority of those who were unaffected chose to ignore the problem. But back home in Zimbabwe things were different — it was everywhere you looked.
During one of the episodes, Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander from the band Years and Years) tells a doctor that he already knows all about AIDS because it’s “all [we] ever talk about.”
Those words from the mouth of a gay drama student in Hackney resonated with me though our worlds were so many miles apart. However, when I look back, I shudder at some of the things we talked about as I now know they contributed to the stigma that has doggedly followed the HIV pandemic. Ritchie’s response to AIDS contains so much familiarity. That’s why, even though It’s A Sin is not "my" story, or about my country, the series has had a huge and lasting impact on me.
In the early days of the AIDS pandemic, the whole world was in the same boat facing an illness to which there was no cure. In Zimbabwe, I started learning about HIV at primary school with the dominant message being: “You will die if you are not careful”. I have vivid memories of watching drama troupes coming to my school to perform AIDS awareness plays where the less careful people always died in the end.
Then in the UK, organisations like Terrence Higgins Trust worked hard to educate gay men about how to protect themselves against AIDS in order to save lives. Eventually a nationwide campaign came from the government with the message “don’t die of ignorance.” The main difference between our countries was that HIV affected the wider population in Zimbabwe, while in the early days it mainly impacted already marginalised groups in the UK and the US.
There were so many AIDS orphans being raised by older brothers and sisters or grandparents, who were shamed in the playground because of it. We were all touched by AIDS and yet it was still weaponised against others. The deep stigma made no sense then and it makes no sense now. Yet still it persists.
Credit: Terrence Higgins Trust
The tragedy of that past, of all those lives lost, is a story beautifully told by It’s A Sin. But in its catharsis, we must take stock of just how far we’ve come, too. Because the medical progress made in this fight has been nothing short of remarkable. And that’s thanks to the brave people shown in the series who fought (and lay down in the streets) for that progress.
Progress which means we now have effective treatment which protects the immune system from damage, allowing a normal lifespan and, when taken consistently, ensuring that HIV can’t be passed on. There’s also a prophylaxis you can take – called PrEP – which stops you from contracting the virus in the first place.
I firmly believe that the more we talk about the realities of HIV, the less scary it becomes — and the more it exposes all the nonsense that is still spouted. HIV isn’t a moral judgement; it is a virus that can affect anyone.
At Terrence Higgins Trust, we have done a lot of work to ensure that the AIDS seen in It’s A Sin isn’t mistaken for HIV in the UK today. Because we want to use the series as a springboard for opening up important conversations about HIV, including for young people who were completely unaware of the crisis and its impact, to tackle the outdated views that still exist today.
The power of TV to change lives.#ItsASin is @Channel4’s most binged watched new series and honours the heroes of the past — stopping our history being forgotten.— Terrence Higgins Trust (@THTorguk) February 5, 2021
It’s also led to more people than ever taking action and getting tested during #HIVTestWeek.
What a legacy. LA! 💙 pic.twitter.com/lzDLDjSkzd
It seems like this has been working. During National HIV Testing Week at the start of February in the UK, we saw HIV test kits being ordered at a faster rate than ever. And that’s because people are learning about all the progress made and feeling bloody lucky to be living at a time when we have effective ways of preventing, testing, and treating HIV. Olly Alexander also helped with this by doing a short film about all the progress made and encouraging people to get tested.
We believe testing is the key to ending the HIV epidemic in the UK. That’s why we’re calling for comprehensive HIV testing as standard across health care, everywhere from GP surgeries to emergency departments and community pharmacies. We need to see a proper step change, with more testing, more often — no matter your age, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality.
We’re united with our partners at the Elton John AIDS Foundation and National AIDS Trust on the importance of opt-out rather than opt-in testing to find the thousands living with undiagnosed HIV. This approach has seen amazing success in maternity care, with almost all expectant mothers tested for HIV meaning now virtually no babies are born in the UK with HIV because of interventions which can be made prior to birth.
Takudzwa interviewing Prince Harry, Gareth Thomas, Chris Robshaw, and Ian Green. Credit: Terrence Higgins Trust
Credit: Terrence Higgins Trust
Credit: Terrence Higgins Trust
But it’s important to recognise that we’re in a very privileged position in the UK. AIDS remains the biggest killer of women of reproductive age in the world, a scandal that makes it feel like HIV is the forgotten epidemic. I can't detail everything here that needs to happen to turn that around, but I hope that the work we’re doing in the UK can act as a partial blueprint for urgent global action. HIV is a global epidemic and requires a global response.
We need to get the basics right and ensure that everyone has easy access to testing and treatment, alongside vital access to HIV prevention options such as PrEP and condoms. That’s how we will turn things around.
We also need to support the brave and inspirational people and organisations leading the change when it comes to HIV. For example, the work of young Zimbabwean Luckmore Pamhidzai, one of my heroes.
In contrast to the silence that surrounded us in my youth, Luckmore lives openly with HIV and helps to tackle the myths surrounding the virus with his lived experience. He calls himself a “treatment supporter” in his Twitter bio, meaning he talks about the importance of testing and treatment to ensure a normal lifespan and that HIV isn’t passed on to loved ones. I believe we will continue to make progress with people like Luckmore leading the charge.
I now have a son of my own and I will talk to him openly about HIV — he already knows that’s why Daddy is on his computer all day. I will tell him the history and its impact on our family back in Zimbabwe, but I will also tell him the realities today and equip him to be a voice of change among his friends here and in Zimbabwe.
Because I believe that young people who see this virus as a virus, and not a shameful thing, will help us to reach a point where HIV is seen in the same way as any other medical condition.
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