Some sectors of the fight against AIDS have suggested that Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, committed genocide through his absence from the fight against the illness in his country throughout his two terms.
For eight years, the South African government rejected the idea that the HIV virus transmitted AIDS. It closed its eyes to the epidemic, refused to distribute anti-retrovirus drugs and gave incentives for using indigenous remedies as a form of treatment.
As a result, South Africa, with a population of 40 million, saw the rise of 2.9 million cases in a little more than a decade, leaving a legacy of 360 thousand dead from AIDS.
This was a tragedy for practically every family in the country: the reduction of life expectancy; fall in productivity; increase in private costs and public expenditures; a generation of orphaned children, greater than during the wars because the mothers survived in the wars.
The South African government’s delay in paying attention to the matter – by treating AIDS seriously – forced the private sector to treat its workers even if this went against the will of government.
In 2002, the firm Anglo Gold South Africa began to distribute anti-retrovirus drugs to its workers because it recognized the high cost of absenteeism and of replacing the workers who were sick or had died.
The Mbeki government insisted that the new medications were instruments of colonialism. It contended that South Africa’s problem was poverty and not the illness.
In addition, it chose to hide, pretending not to see the tragedy, while maintaining that the correct strategy was economic growth sufficient to solve the problem of the epidemic.
From the point of view of the physical and emotional suffering, nothing can be compared to the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, except perhaps the Holocaust during the Nazi period.
What is to be said, however, about the governments that close their eyes to the spread of an equally grave – although less fatal – illness, the lack of educating peoples?
While the impact of AIDS upon life may be much greater and more visible, the denial of education brings another type of waste and suffering. AIDS brings physical suffering and even death, but failure to educate peoples brings low income, inefficiency, inequality, poverty, humiliation.
The etymology of the word “genocide” means the physical killing of large masses of persons. It is not applied to the inattention to education.
From the conceptual point of view, however, this inattention means that tens of millions of Brazilians are condemned to the torture of illiteracy, to hunger and poverty, to the lack of information and opportunities.
From the national point of view, it is a betrayal of the country, condemning it to backwardness and underdevelopment.
Independently of the name of the crime, its dimension is that of genocide and its consequences are that of “another AIDS,” one that is invisible in the body but perceptible in the spirit and in the nation at large.
A “gray AIDS,” the color of the brain, caused by what President Lula has called the “cost of doing nothing,” stemming from what was previously called “the cost of omission.”
Denying education is a form of incinerating brains. The crime can be called “neurocide” – the mass murders of neurons. It results not through the action of someone operating the gas chamber, but by someone pretending not to see the smoke rising from the crematorium of brains.
During slavery, we “burned” Africans, tossing them into the sea, condemning them to forced labor, just as the Nazis condemned and burned, above all, Jews.
Now, we burn brains by expelling 60 children per minute of the school year and by not providing quality education to those who stay in school.
Just as South Africa did with AIDS, in Brazil many consider “genocidal” those who threaten the future by burning forests. At the same time, they ignore those who threaten the future of millions of children and of the entire country by burning their brains, by denying them a quality school.
If denying the correct care to HIV carriers can be considered a form of genocide by omission, then denying education should not be considered any differently.
Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at email@example.com.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome LinJerome@cs.com.