He lies in the hospital bed, bloody and bruised, his face beaten beyond recognition. Jian Hua is HIV positive, and his wife, Yu Qiong, has an advanced case of AIDS. Last year she gave birth to their first baby who quickly died from AIDS. Last week they went back to the wife’s home village to seek help from her family.
While the family looked on, some of the villagers, knowing they had HIV, badly beat up the husband with sticks and hammers, breaking his right forearm and left lower leg, battering his head. They dragged them out of the village and told them never to come back. The family did not come to help. Now Jian Hua cannot work to support them (even if someone was willing to hire him), and they are going to be turned out of their one-room apartment if they cannot pay their rent. The hospital says they will not even treat his present problems if he cannot pay. The fractures and wounds are painful. They have nowhere to turn for help.
Zhu Fang Fang plays alone most days, inside their tiny mud brick home, because the neighbors no longer allow her to play with their children. She is lonely, and does not understand. She has never known her father and misses her mother who is too sick to even acknowledge her. Fang Fang is five years old but has little chance of reaching fifteen, because she is HIV positive. Her father was a drug addict who died before she was born. Her mother lies dying in severe agony, without medical care, on a woven mat in the corner of the one-room home. Her body is now skeleton-like and is covered with large, painful, oozing sores. Nausea, loose stools and cramping bowels keep her in constant distress. She will not live through the week.
Grandmother Zhu is doing the best she can to care for her daughter-in-law as she dies—but mostly she is frustrated that the local hospital will not help them, and that the government’s “free treatment” for her daughter-in-law’s sickness only includes medications (not hospitalization or lab tests) and was only available at the county hospital, several hours away by bus. The costs of keeping Hong Mei in the hospital and treating her complicating illnesses was far more than the old woman could afford on a meager retirement income. All of the family’s savings were spent years ago when her son was dying. She watched him perish slowly, not knowing what was killing him. Most of his friends, also IV drug addicts, died in similar ways. She weeps most deeply when she thinks of the same fate to come for little Zhu, who received the virus from her mother at birth, before they knew the diagnosis.
The family lives rejected by all who know them, without hope, with no one to care for or comfort them. The neighbors no longer offer friendship or bring food. In fact, they never come into the home or even into the yard. They turn away when they see Grandma Zhu out in the garden working. Other family members escaped to the city years ago and have not been seen or heard from. The shame was too much to bear. The black cloud of poverty and death casts a deep and vicious shadow over the home.
Guang Nan lives in a world of fantasy these daysit is the only way he can escape the realities of what his life has become. He dreams of food and health, of physical well-being, of having a family that cares about him as they used to.
Just two years before he was the vice-governor of the county, his days filled with official meetings, important trips and banquets many evenings every week. He often drank until heavily intoxicated, visiting local brothels with his colleagues afterwards. He enjoyed the women provided for him by those who sought the help of his powerful position.
Eight months ago he became suddenly ill and nearly died of pneumonia. When they eventually diagnosed him with AIDS, he was forced out of the hospital abruptly and quietly informed that his position as vice-governor had been terminated. His wife immediately filed for divorce and refused to allow him to return home. She put his clothes in a box by the gate. He was destitute, homeless and very much alone almost overnight.
Few of his old friends will now answer the phone when he calls. He lives day-to-day in a shack on the edge of town, stealing food wherever he can, creating fantasies to pass the time, sleeping in the dirt with a ragged blanket to cover his dirty clothes. He can receive free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) at the local hospital, but he cannot afford to pay for all the incidental costs which are many. He often thinks of suicide.
Ping is in her junior year at a university. For two years she has studied hard during the week and partied hard on weekends. Her parents are government officials. Since entering college, Ping has become increasingly sexually active. Her roommates had all done the same, and it seemed so harmless and made her popular. The list of who she had slept with had grown longer every month.
Last week she attended her first HIV prevention seminar at the university. What she learned there scared her. She had never before thought so much about the possibility of getting AIDS. Deciding to go in for voluntary testing at the free clinic on campus, she was sure she would be okay. But when the result came back positive, she was shocked and devastated.
Two days later, the counselor from the school informed Ping that she was being expelled from the school, effective immediately. She was given three hours to clear her things out of the dorm. She wept bitterly while she packed. Her roommate did not speak to her or help her carry her bags out of the building.
She has nowhere to go. She knows that if her parents find out, they will be too ashamed to have her return home. She wonders if there is any hope to be found, fearful of what the future holds.
China has come a long way since the early days of AIDS when new patients were simply isolated to die alone. Many good things have happened with government policy and medical practice.
In the last five years we have seen immense improvements with hospitals now beginning to allow patients to receive care, government blacklists of all who are diagnosed slowly ceasing to exist, and ARVs (the drugs used to combat the disease) just now beginning to be available to a few. Jobs for those infected are still hard to come by. The organizational and infrastructural hurdles within government departments are slowly being recognized and overcome, and prevention education is beginning to happen more broadly (though it continues, in general, to be merely a rote passing out of information rather than any attempt to transform behavior) in the school system and factories. The villages remain significantly uninformed, though a process has begun of establishing a general knowledge of HIV. In the end, the realities of stigma and a system which does not yet meet the needs of those affected are still quite harsh.
In many parts of China, as the prevalence of HIV increases regularly, families are being devastated and crying out for various forms of help. Most are suffering alone, as in the examples described above. What direction will all of this take?
Surely, the government will continue their trend to improve services, educate the public and attempt to reduce stigma. However, to what extent will this improve the severity of the need if Chinese society is not significantly transformed in its attitudes toward those affected by HIV and AIDS?
Last year I was speaking to a house church pastor, encouraging him to involve his church in responding to some of the needs. He expressed some interest and asked what that would look like. I described many aspects of the need, and at the end of a long list (counseling, taking orphans into homes, hospice care, stigma reduction, prevention education and so on), I included the idea that his church would become a place which welcomed recovering IV drug addicts, prostitutes and the HIV infected. This took him by surprise.
“But we are Christians!” was his initial reply.
“Exactly! That’s the point!” I returned. “What kind of people did Jesus choose to love and minister to?” I asked. “Did he focus on the hurting or the healthy?”
“I see your point,” he replied after thinking about it for awhile.
A year later, this pastor’s church is actively involved in welcoming those who are affected in the many ways that HIV destroys lives. They are taking in the orphans, ministering to prostitutes and addicts and providing hospice to the dying. They are providing jobs to those who, because of stigma, are unemployable.
The church in China must begin asking a very important question: “What entity in China is able and willing to respond to the needs being created by AIDS?” A few of the needs are being responded to by the government. Their response is growing. However, will it ever even begin to effectively impact the pain and suffering rapidly overwhelming hundreds of thousands? I don’t believe so.
I believe that only the church is able and (potentially) willing to respond to the need. AIDS is, in fact, probably the greatest opportunity the Chinese church has ever had to offer the tangible and very real love of Jesus to this hurting nation. Will she respond? Will China’s church respond to Jesus’ cry from within the hurting bodies and souls of her people? Will they worship in spirit and in truthpresenting themselves to be spent sacrificially for Jesus’ name and glory? I believe she is ready, at last, to stand up and become willing to be Jesus to her nation. Jesus and the world are waiting for her answer.
Image credit: AIDS awareness ad in China by Kenneth Lu, on Flickr