As the world moves to get rid of stigma, it is worrisome that some Malawians living with HIV are not just suffering harsh treatment in workplaces. But some have ended up being jobless, struggling to guarantee their livelihood.
Let’s call him Gift Manda to safeguard his identity. In his early 40s, the businessperson at Chinsapo in Lilongwe was dismissed simply because of his status.
“Life became unbearable when my workmates discovered I was HIV positive. I was still healthy, but they always ignored me. I was disappointed,” says the widower who has five children.
In what could be a hint at institutionalised stigma, Manda says even his bosses started neglecting him—leaving him out of important functions and research projects.
“A year later, management forced me to resign. They claimed I was a victim of some restructuring process. I felt dumped as my services were terminated with no benefits,” bemoans Manda, who had worked eight years with the firm.
The loss of income admittedly left Manda relocating from Biwi to Chinsapo, where he started selling fish to support his children. Later, he started vending second-hand clothes, popularly known as kaunjika.
Manda’s is just one of the effects of HIV-related stigma in workplaces.
While some have lost jobs due to the virus, Veronica Banda, a worker at Likuni Mission Hospital in Lilongwe, has maintained hers for 13 years.
“I tested HIV positive in 2000 when I was expectant. I wasn’t sure how my workmates would welcome the news, but here I am still working with the hospital as an expert client,” she says.
Agnes Malunga is another HIV positive worker at the hospital. She tested positive in 2009 and the tests nearly coincided with her promotion.
“I tested positive after a long illness. I was glad; at least I knew what was killing me silently. My employers did not fire me as others do. Instead, I got a promotion just a few months later,” says Malunga.
Save for life-prolonging drugs, she credited her healthy looks to the support and smiles she gets from friends, workmates and family, saying: “It makes me feel at home”.
For the two survivors, their journey to self-discovery started with a handbook—the HIV/Aids Workplace Policy.
Among other things, the policy safeguards the wellbeing and rights of workers living with HIV by tackling discriminatory tendencies while enlightening the affected of their responsibilities.
The policy varies from one organisation to another but plays a central role in helping those living secure their jobs.
According to Sister Agnes Lungu, Likuni Mission Hospital adopted the policy after noting how workers suffer.
“Every human being, ill or not, must be treated with respect. So, there is no need to fire a worker because he/she has HIV,” says the nun who administers the hospital.
Lungu explains that apart from securing jobs, the policy encourages workers to go for HIV test to know their status and how to take care of themselves as well as to avoid spreading the virus.
She says the fact that many organisations are yet to adopt the policy could be the reason some workers continue to lose jobs because of their condition.
Some of the victims are forced to resign just to steer clear of the discrimination they suffer from their colleagues at the workplace. At worst, stigma leads to premature deaths as people are afraid to seek care, treatment and support services.
For a majority of Malawians, job losses worsen their livelihood as income dwindles. This, in return, affects access to quality care and nutritious food.
Being diagnosed of HIV is neither a crime nor death sentence.
National Aids Commission (NAC)board chairperson Senior Chief Makwangwala says an organisation stand to lose more when it gets rid of people living with HIV.
“Apart from paying the employees their terminal benefits, organisations lose much more in terms of the resources they invested in their training and skills,” says Makwangwala.
He says this also affects the nation’s social-economic development which starts at an individual then company levels.
Realising that nobody is free from the effects of the pandemic, workplace policies can help lessen both the spread and impact of the pandemic.
Like Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi once said, we must all start being the change we wish to see in the world.
One wonders when some employers are going to make the right move to guarantee the wellbeing of their staff.