Testing times

Out of the blue, one Monday morning, my Prince Charming calls from Dakar. He has been invited to an Aids conference in South Africa. Can I pick him up at Johannesburg International airport on Friday?

Yummy.
Nice prospect for a honeymoon weekend. I wax, manicure, pedicure, colour hair, stock up on bubbly, candles and that good old ally, KY gel. On Thursday night, as I go to bed, it hits me. At our last Encounter of the Close Kind, Prince Charming and I had agreed that we would have sex without a condom if each of us produced an HIV-free test. Such are the times, my friends. Okay, no big deal. I’ll get tested on Friday.

Hah! Easier said than done. Come Friday morning, I start the quest. The Aids Helpline ad in the newspaper gives me two contact numbers, one for the Sammy Marks clinic in downtown Pretoria and one for the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the suburbs. The clinic’s number has changed and the recording does not give the new number. It is not listed in the phone book and Directory Inquiries cannot find it either. The MRC says it does not do HIV testing but any family planning clinic will. Neither the phone book nor Directory Inquiries yield any family planning clinics in Pretoria. They must call them something else now—empowered fertility, stakeholder’s family size decision, whatever.

I call the Aids Consortium in Johannesburg. The receptionist says she will find out and call me back if I give her my number. I do; she never calls back. But, I wonder, if you are a teenager, a domestic worker or an office employee, how can you give a callback number for—gasp—an Aids test? I mean, you wouldn’t tell the receptionist or your mom you are getting tested for genital warts, right?

I call a couple of private hospitals. They don’t do HIV testing. By now I have spent an hour on the phone. I call the loveLife hotline and get the address of the Sammy Marks clinic. I drive into central Pretoria. It is Friday at 11am. On Vermeulen Street I get stuck in traffic for 45 minutes during which time I:

  • Listen to old songs by Bob Dylan and Jim Croce and think what a wonderful time that was when we could have sex and only worry about pubic lice and pregnancy.
  • Start writing this piece.
  • Do some arithmetic. My object of desire will stay in Pretoria for four days. I am wasting my life on this traffic jam. How many minutes of condomless pleasure will Prince Charming’s visit amount to? Is it worth it? Should I quit the quest?

I finally get to the clinic at about noon, but it is closed for HIV testing on Fridays and Saturdays. Why? I phone my Aids contacts, who tell me the reason for this is that people who have been diagnosed HIV-positive could become suicidal over the weekend, when the clinic is closed. I am not suicidal. I am murderous. I am so angry, my expletives can be heard all the way to the Union Buildings.

I call a private lab, which will do the test in three hours for R275, but first I need to have a doctor’s prescription. So I drive to my doctor in Hatfield. The receptionist greets me with a smile ... and a bill. How come my health insurance has not paid it? I discover that for three years this clinic has been ripping me off, charging me 75% more than it does local patients because I am a foreigner. Never mind that I have a local health insurance and pay taxes in South Africa. Welcome to The Great Proudly South African Medical Rip Off. I get into an argument with the doctor. So much for the test. I am not about to discuss my sex life with him. In fact, I don’t want to have a love life anymore!

Now, given that testing can become so complicated, is it surprising that people avoid it? It should be dumb-easy to find out where you can get tested. Because few people voluntarily test for HIV in Botswana, that country now requires routine testing of all patients using public health facilities. Maybe I should drive into Botswana, go to hospital, complain of searing backache, get tested for free and then drive back.

In Uganda, which has long had HIV testing as a cornerstone of its effective anti-Aids policy, the Aids Information Centre offers counselling and testing until 8pm weekdays and from 9am to 5pm at the weekend. No wonder more than one million Ugandans have been tested.

Tanzania is trying out rural mass testing. After a session of collective counselling, dozens of villagers queue at the mobile clinic. Just like for polio shots. That’s all I wished for that Friday—a simple, free, non-bureaucratic way of HIV testing.

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