As many of you are aware — particularly those of us who live in football-mad England — the World Cup is fast approaching. And some of us might also be aware that this year it’s taking place in South Africa, a country that is home to over 5.7 million HIV-positive people. Very little has been made in the international media of the fact that the World Cup is taking place in a country with the world’s highest population of HIV-positive people. Which I find interesting, given the intense analysis of China’s human rights record when it hosted the Olympic Games, given the global panic attack that took place last year over swine flu. The moral dilemmas here are just as profound as in China, the potential world health dangers just as real as swine flu. Yet few people are talking about it. Maybe because it’s Africa we don’t want to criticize or analyze; maybe because it’s sex we don’t even want to acknowledge it. But the global conversation needs to start soon.
Because here’s what’s going to happen this summer: hundreds of thousands of foreigners (and this is leaving aside the locals), most of them men, most of them young and unattached (or at least feeling unattached for the duration of the event) are about to descend upon South Africa for a month-long party. Which means an enormous likelihood of extensive amounts of casual sex—risky, as the AIDS experts would call it – taking place all across the country. South African sex workers are reportedly rubbing their hands. “We just can’t wait,” Yolanda Lorika, a 19-year-old prostitute, told The Sun in the UK. “We only get paid about £10 for sex when drivers stop for us here. English men will pay a lot more.”
Poor sex workers, relatively wealthy foreigners, seeking revelry in victory and solace in defeat: does this sound like an STD perfect storm?
South African authorities are aware of the potential dangers and are taking steps to prepare. Local charities are planning to use the event for HIV/AIDS awareness raising, while South African health authorities are planning to distribute around 1 billion condoms, more than double the number the government normally distributes. And last month the UK donated 1million pounds to South Africa to support the purchase of those condoms. All of which is necessary and worthy, but the liquor companies also need to get involved as well, because drinking will probably be the second most popular recreational activity for foreign visitors. And anyone who’s ever worked on HIV/AIDS – well, anyone who’s ever had a sex life — will tell you that even the best intentions around protected sex fly out the window after enough drinks.
But it’s not just the responsibility of South Africa to address the potential implications of HIV/AIDs at the World Cup; it is a global responsibility. Without being alarmist, the potential impact of this World Cup could be enormous on infection rates within South Africa and around the world. HIV/AIDS is largely off the Western world’s radar, particularly among young people who never lived through the 1980s. So the epidemic simply won’t be on the minds of the young Italians, Americans, English and Mexicans enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime event. But somebody needs to make sure it is on visitors’ minds, well before they’ve taken that first drink, even before they board the airplane.
Yes, FIFA and major sponsors like Nike have committed to using the World Cup as a major platform for HIV/AIDS fundraising. But that continues to work on the paradigm of addressing the African problem of HIV/AIDs. Foreign governments, FIFA, and sponsors such as Nike have also got to deploy their celebrity spokespeople and utilize their public access to speak directly to global fans, particularly male, about exercising responsibility while in South Africa. Indeed, some very frank, clear messages about safe sex need to start appearing in the western media, on sports pages and on chat shows: nothing more than men giving other men a heads-up.
OK, I know this might all sound very uncomfortable. But can we afford to ignore the potentially ugly details associated with watching the “Beautiful Game” in South Africa this summer?