By George W Nyabadza
RECENTLY I sat through an HIV/Aids workshop where the presenter made a statement that I can still remember clearly and that I believe puts the proper perspective on
this global issue: “The effective management of the impact of HIV/Aids is set to be one of the most compelling business challenges of the next decade and perhaps longer.”
A closer look at the statistics of this epidemic clearly shows the enormity of the problem; 25 to 28 million people — adults and children — estimated to be living with HIV/Aids as at the end of 2003.
South African antenatal statistics show that one in every three newly-born infants is HIV-positive. There seems no sign of the prevalence rate decreasing in the region.
The impact of Aids deaths and HIV-related sicknesses on national productivity and growth has been estimated to be in billions of dollars over the next decade or so. I think it is fair to say that by now almost everyone reading this article has been exposed to HIV/Aids in one way or another, directly or indirectly. So to plead ignorance in this case is no defence.
It then begs the question why the rate of infection is not slowing down amongst the economically active and why sexual behaviours are not changing?
I am of the view that a lot is being done at the macro level by the government and the donor community — national campaigns, condom distribution, road shows and so on. At corporate level many initiatives in terms of related education are being implemented. However, until the business leaders personally drive the HIV/Aids awareness, the epidemic shall not be quickly stemmed.
In Uganda the personal involvement of the president and his wife has finally stemmed the explosive HIV growth in that country. On a business level, are you as a leader prepared to stack your own weight behind the strategy to stem the spread of the disease amongst your own staff. How open and transparent are you prepared to be to challenge the sexual behaviours of not just the labour force or the lower level staff members, but also that of your immediate management team?
Of course, by definition you have to reflect on your own sexual behaviours and whether you aid or abet the process. Why should you focus on stemming the spread of HIV? If you do not do so, every investment in human resource development (include here direct training and the value of experience gained) will literally evaporate in the next five to 10 years. The business has to go on so you will have to factor in your growth plans — significant recruitment, training and development costs.
To minimise this potential cost you need to play an active role in the process to stem the epidemic.
One of the key challenges that you can put across to every member of staff is for them to know their HIV status. Knowing your status has significant benefits in that if you are HIV-positive you can immediately seek professional assistance on diet and medication. In the event that you are HIV-negative, you can appreciate the benefits of safe and responsible living.
It is important to note that many people who are diagnosed HIV-positive are living longer now than in years gone by. HIV is not an immediate death sentence and much can be done to live a happy and healthy life for a number of years.
A positive diagnosis requires a positive attitude and there is a lot of support available to help deal with physical and emotional stress.
So the challenge to the leader is first to know your own status and to readjust your life and behaviours in accordance and then to take the challenge to the team and encourage them to find out their status and to do something about their lifestyles.