Fatima Bulla Musakwa
HIV and Aids activist, Tendayi Westerhof, is one personality who embodies resilience, strength and courage.
In 2002 when the stigma against people living HIV and Aids was at its peak, she shrugged off all fears before disclosing her positive status to the world.
She instantly became the face of the fight against the disease, a heroine among those living with the virus.
The former top model had to endure all forms of abuse following her disclosure.
Any other mere mortal would have given up the fight in the face of intense hostility and shaming, but not Westerhof.
She continued advocating for the rights of people living with the virus, urging them to embrace life and religiously abide by prescribed medicine regimes.
Nearly two decades after her act of bravery, Ms Westerhof is now at the forefront of marshalling a fight against yet another contagion.
Amid widespread vaccine hesitancy, especially among people with underlying health conditions, recently she bit the bullet and took her first dose of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine.
She told The Sunday Mail that she took the vaccine in order to show her peers that the jab was safe, even for people with co-morbidities.
“My health has been good. It is almost two weeks now since I got vaccinated and nothing has changed,” she said.
“Like other people I was worried because I have an underlying condition; that of living with HIV.
“I was worried about the suitability of the vaccine for me and whether I would have adverse side effects or not.
“After getting all the necessary information that I wanted to know about the vaccine, I made a personal choice to be vaccinated.
“So far so good, I have not experienced any side effects.”
Ms Westerhof said while disinformation about HIV and Aids was a problem when stigma against those living with HIV was at its peak, the advent of new technologies and social media was making it even more of a challenge to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said a lot of false information about the vaccines was being circulated on social media, thereby creating fertile ground for vaccine hesitancy.
With 18 years of advocacy experience, she said community leaders should take the lead in debunking myths about vaccines.
Ms Westerhof said being vaccinated was one sure way of engendering confidence in the vaccine.
“People should not be worked out about vaccines because a lot that has been said out there is misinformation stemming from social media.
“People should not believe everything they read from social media.
“We have reliable sources of information about Covid-19 coming from authorities including the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
“At times we are getting overwhelmed by too much information and in the end we cannot separate what is false and what is true,” she said.
According to Ms Westerhof, a lot of false information was being broadcast questioning the efficacy of the vaccine, which is manufactured in China.
“This why I took the vaccine, to dispel myths about the vaccine especially because it comes from China.
“And generally it is just a misconception that things that come from China are of low quality, grade and meant for the poor,” she said.
Ms Westerhof, who is the national director of the Pan African Positive Women’s Coalition Zimbabwe, has spearheaded programmes to help spur women living with HIV and Aids through difficulties, which have been compounded by the pandemic.
Founded in 2015, the organisation advocates for the improvement of policy response to people living with HIV, particularly women.
With the advent of Covid-19, PAPWC-Zim has stretched its focus to addressing challenges related to the pandemic.
“I was not spared from the devastating effects of Covid-19 particularly the lockdowns that started in March last year.
“I was also affected like all other women living with HIV through loss of income,” said Ms Westerhof.
“We were forced to stay at home and had to be innovative on how we do business.
“Since the lockdown started we introduced e-bulletins on our social media platforms for women living with HIV in all the 10 provinces.
“Through these bulletins, we kept them informed on what was happening with regards to health issues.
“We also opened a hotline for women who were experiencing health problems and needed counselling.
She said PAPWC-Zim goes beyond advocating for rights of women pertaining their health and is involved in building their capacity to take up leadership positions.
“We tackle issues of leadership to ensure that women living with HIV are capacitated in leadership and that they are involved in decision making spaces.
“For example, we prepare them for sitting on corporate boards.
“And also we have managed to ensure that women living with HIV are meaningfully involved and engaged in all processes in the fight against HIV, sexual and reproductive health as well as mitigation of Tuberculosis and malaria among other communicable diseases”.
Turing to her family life, Ms Westerhorf said she endured difficulties after revealing her status, but has lived to be proud of the decision.
“I am a happy mother of four because when I disclosed my HIV status back in 2002, my children were young.
“All of them have grown up now, with the youngest one having just turned 18.
“One of my children completed university, two are working and I am a grandmother of five.
“I am doing well and I have lived to see my grandchildren and my children have continued to support me over the years.
“Yes, sometimes life was difficult, but we soldiered on.”
She said the secret to her longevity
was always having a positive outlook on life.
While the Covid-19 pandemic presented new challenges, the worst will be over if more people are vaccinated.
“I look forward to life and now I am have done my bit to help beat this Covid-19,” said Ms Westerhof.
“I am coping well and I thank God for my life.
“Many would have loved to live up to this end, but we lost a lot of people over the years because of AIDS.
“I have lived diligently with it, taking my treatment everyday and not doing things that cause me to
be vulnerable to re-infection.”