Locked down and LGBTQ+


Young people in Namibia – especially in the Erongo region – are bracing themselves for a prolonged restriction on movement in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

Cut off from school and usual gatherings with friends, young people face various challenges, from disrupted education to difficult home environments, and for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more (LGBTQ+), the experience of restricted movement often carries an additional threat – being ‘outed’ to family.

In fact, the United Nations Free and Equal campaign, an initiative to afford LGBTQ+ people legal and social protection worldwide, has documented increased danger for LGBTQ+ people as a result of lockdown measures across the world.

The situation is especially dire for countries where same-sex relations are still criminalised, like the majority of African countries with sodomy laws.

In other circumstances, countries like Uganda and Nigeria have enacted new legislation over the last decade, often draconian in nature, to persecute LGBTQ+ people.

Nevertheless, hope exists with Mozambique, Angola and Botswana repealing their sodomy laws in the last five years. Meanwhile, this past week, Gabon became the first African country to revoke a recently adopted law criminalising same-sex relations.

In Namibia, young people are building upon the movement started by LGBTQ+ advocates such as Liz Frank and Elizabeth !Kaxas. Though prevented from meeting in real time, young people have seized upon social media to make their voices heard. Two such individuals are Omar van Reenen and Rodelio Lewis, both from Walvis Bay, a town currently at the epicentre of Namibia’s Covid-19 infections. Van Reenen is a student in politics, gender studies and biochemistry at the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Oswego in the US. When not shouting down an encroaching phalanx of police during the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Van Reenen leads the student government of SUNY Oswego.

He is also an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Namibia, and was one of the first to raise the alarm regarding the human rights abuse of a transgender woman in the Omaheke region during stage one of the state of emergency on his Twitter account (@OmarvanReenen).

Van Reenen received a full scholarship to SUNY after he applied during his final year at a local Walvis Bay secondary school. But since the Covid-19 lockdown began in the state of New York, his scholarship has diminished and he has relied on the goodwill of his professors to survive, in addition to limited funds from home. This has not stopped him from advocating the rigths of others.

“LGBT people have been some of the worst hit, we have lost our livelihoods,” he says.

On the significance of the sodomy law in Namibia, the Immoral Practices Act of 1980, Van Reenen says the country’s strength can be found in its diversity.

“Namibia is only strong when it sees its multitude of diverse people’s groups as its biggest strength. This is only achievable with the repeal of this law and encouragement of respect and tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community. The Immoral Practices Act is not only a clear violation of the Constitution, but also of international human rights law,” he says.

Lewis describes himself as “a coloured Namibian, actor, radio presenter, commercial model and queer activist”.

Like Van Reenen, he is an advocate for his community, participating in the #BeFree dialogue for LGBTQ+ inclusion, hosted by Namibia’s first lady, Monica Geingos, at the National Theatre of Namibia in May 2019.


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At precipice of the the old world of intimacy (Being Open to love in times of uncertainty II)

The Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi gave life to the Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love in 2000 with the piece Yumeji’s Theme, a song without words, brimming with melancholic themes, known in western romantic compositions, but with a Chinese feel.

Walking the streets of Hong Kong, I remembered this evocative song and the story from the film, set in 1960s Hong Kong, when Britain still ruled a city that was the Venice of its time – a crossroads between east and west.

Winning a silver medal among film critics searching for the best film of the century, In the Mood for Love is about love in times of restraint, withholding and avoiding direct contact with the object of one’s desire.

This hits too close to home right now, for the millions of people under a mandatory house arrest of sorts. And so my dear reader, the biggest lesson I have for you from my time in Hong Kong is not how they managed to whittle themselves down in the Covid-19 global rankings but rather how to still be open to love, even in these times of uncertainty.

With so much talk about social distancing, particularly in the United States where study after study reinforces the idea that this is what their large population needs to do in order to halt the virus, who would have time to think about love – or more specifically sex?

Still, people will continue to fulfil the most primal of human needs. One of the cities that was hardest hit at the start of the HIV-Aids pandemic, New York, circulated official guidelines for sex in times of coronavirus. I implore you to look these up yourselves, because I cannot do justice to their specifications here. Nor is this my aim.

What I can tell you about evidence of the coronavirus being present in body fluids discharged from the sexual organ? If you really need to know, so far the virus has been found in the semen of young man, but the ramifications of this finding, in terms of SARS-COV-2 being the new STI remain unknown. Clearly, the virus is in saliva, understandably, since it spreads easily through droplets released during coughing. Kissing then, and not having penetrative sex, it seems is the highest risk activity for Covid-19.

Will we the pictures of couples kissing sporting surgical mask on become the new normal? I for one hope not.

Those pictures are trending on this day, July 6th, International Kissing Day – today – the day I decided to republish this article. This may be the most unromantic world smooching day in living memory. It need not be that way, though. We can still be in the mood for love with our glances, eyes fixing upon those of another, a smile acknowledging that the feeling inside is mutual.

I have had a number of such experiences, the last of which was on the day I had to fly out of that Mecca of the gay community known as Sydney. I was on my way to pick up laundry, but my eye caught a glimpse of this man, perhaps my age, curly blonde hair on a skateboard with a handle, the kind that is so common among commuters in big cities.

He smiled at me, perhaps as soon as I let my gaze meet his. Did he know the way to the park, I asked. Of course, he did, but so did I. Now with his attention sealed, I proceeded to make more small talk – where was he for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras just two days ago? Camping with friends, so he missed it, pity, but he had a good time anyway. And so it proceeded from one word to the next, until I admitted I did actually know my way, but if I did not pretend to be lost, how could I have had him slow down a little, amidst the morning rush? It did not matter that there were people dashing past us, towards George Street, the main artery of the city, or heading to catch a train in the station, time stood still for those moments.

Did I kiss him? I try to remember. I am up, in my bed. The cold of the winter morning hits me, again, as I uncover the layers of blankets we use for warmth in this hiver austral, yet so far away from Australia.  Thousands of miles away by plane from Sydney, from the entrance to Central Station with the slopping road down towards Broadway and the ancient walkway that Aboriginal people traversed before it was named after the monarch of the white people. Would he too be wondering where I was? I picture it now, my eyes closed – there I am here, on the edge of the walkway looking out and I spot him going off; he who became my Prince in an instant. He had let himself skate down the road, on his one handle working-man’s board. The golden haired Doug and I were together for just a moment, just one moment in time, on the street! Imagine if had met in the gay club? Would I ever see him again? The clubs have reopened I hear, but they are not as full, I imagine they get cold at night, like my room this morning.  But there is still no news of when I can kiss Jason in Belmore Park, quench my thirst for the soul of Josh in Hyde Park near Oxford Street or bid farewell to Dough at start of the walkway leading out of Central Station to the streets below. For whoever else is roaming those streets, know that meeting a stranger in Sydney (or Paris or New York or Hong Kong) has changed, but hopefully not forever.

Indeed Hong Kong has changed, but hopefully not forever.

Version I published in The Namibian newspaper on March 27th and then republished on Mambaonline https://www.mambaonline.com/2020/05/01/being-open-to-love-in-times-of-uncertainty/

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Finding a COVID-19 cure is not a popularity contest


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Swallow the Inconvenient Truth

By Pancho Mulongeni, MPH

Published in The Namibian 17th April 2020

An inconvenient truth is often described as the acknowledgment that official versions of the facts are far from the reality. In this pandemic, there are inconvenient truths regarding the measures and positions African countries have taken.

On April 14th RFI – International French radio – reported that the current bans on the sale of alcohol and tobacco in South Africa led to “a flowering of parallel black markets” for these substances. The news report spoke of how individuals selling of alcohol would ingratiate themselves with power – the police – in order to continue backyard selling of traditional liquor. On their part, police officers were caught siphoning away alcohol from these backyard businesses and have been charged. Criticism of this French news story is forthcoming, from South Africa and other countries, where policy makers claim prohibition would lower rates of domestic violence. However, the evidence for this is lacking. In fact, the World Health Organisation has not encouraged prohibition, but has nonetheless advised that lockdowns across countries may increase domestic violence rates (COVID-19 and violence against women, WHO human reproduction program, 07/04/2020)

Yet it is not leaving one’s home that may increase domestic violence – it is often the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including agitation and even psychotic episodes among those who have alcohol addiction. (COVID-19 panel on mental health, NBC, 06/04/2020). There is also the impact on the health facilities. As substance abuse researcher Alex Gertner at the University of North Carolina put it (@gertner_alex,Twitter, 3/04/2020), even if we were to consider that just 5% of individuals with alcohol addiction as vulnerable to withdrawal symptoms, that would necessitate additional beds in health facilities. In the US, that would mean an additional 750 000 beds. What would the number be in sub-Saharan Africa? How many people suffer from alcohol addiction in Namibia? These data are lacking, but policy makers may soon find this out – the hard way.

Arguable the most contentious issue is the prospect of a vaccine trial against this pandemic coronavirus in Africa. Two French scientists who discussed this on television have since become the objects of vitriol, described as racist and imperialist. This criticism, however, is far from justified. As the expression, please excuse my French goes, the doctors statements could have been stated more diplomatically. However, they speak the inconvenient truth that the most African nations lack access to the financial or material resources to offer face-masks to all their citizens, unlike in first world nations. For this reason, the rate of infection in Africa may continue to grow, while it stabilizes and falls in Western nations, following the trajectory in China. This point is key – a vaccine trial would be not viable in those countries, because the transmission of the virus may soon ground to a halt.

Notwithstanding, African leaders were quick to assail the suggestion of a vaccine trial as tantamount to guinea-pig experimentation on humans. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the practices of Europeans running experimental treatment on African populations is what happened during colonialism, before the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, which enshrined the principles to follow when undergoing research on humans. The declaration has been revised multiple times since then, but the issue of how vaccine trials are undertaken in Africa has not disappeared – with Western scholars pitted against the WHO over the ethics of the last stages of the malaria vaccine trial on the continent  (The Scientist, bioethicists criticize WHO Malaria vaccine trial, 28/02/2020). The WHO, in principle, would not oppose the conduct of SARS-COV-2 vaccine trial in Africa. However, the outrage that ensued after the suggestion of a vaccine left the WHO director general with no choice. He could either condemn the suggestion or lose credibility among African nations for not doing so. And it is credibility that counts most all when a critical public health response is required (Josh Sharfstein author of The Public Health Crisis Survival Guide: Leadership and Management in Trying Times).

What then, does the ban on alcohol and revulsion to a COVID-19 vaccine trial have in common? Both of these allow leaders to advance policies that enjoy popular support, but which may have unintended policy consequences. The vaccine trial debate, in fact, may have the most serious consequence, because it would prevent assessment of a candidate vaccine the continent. Unlike the views African leaders have on alcohol use and the status of imperialism, viruses do not stay the same. Current evidence from virologist Peter Forster, who studies how SARS- coronavirus-2 family tree branches out, suggests the virus continues to diversify – mutate – in human populations outside of China (Phylogenetic Network of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, PNAS, 8/04/2020). What does this imply – an untested vaccine developed in Asia or Europe may not work as well in African populations. Our leaders will need to swallow this most inconvenient truth with a glass of wine.

Available online: https://www.namibian.com.na/90335/read/Swallow-the-Inconvenient-Truth

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Opinion pieces – Op-ed articles – in The Namibian 2010-2020 #HealthAdvocacy

I have turned my health writing into opinion pieces in The Namibian newspaper:

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Young people involved in crimes in Sydney

Awareness of young people who commit crimes in Australia

The safety of Sydney – relative to Namibia – has deceived me into believing there is not much crime that happens here. I thought to myself, if there is crime that happens here, it must be so infrequent that I have not come across anyone who has been a victim thereof. That changed today, in the suburb of Ashfield, where I spent a few hours in the mall. A woman screaming several times, onlookers rushing towards the scene. I missed my train to the hipster suburb of Newton, so I though I would walk down the road to find out what happen, and get one a few of the best Chinese deserts I have ever had – Ashfield has them. I discover from a man and woman standing outside that young people had attempted to purchase alcohol without an ID. After the shop assistant refused, they threatened, hence the screams. They later dispersed. This is real life, crime does happen. My project matters.

iwr-icon-signature.png I’m using Inbox When Ready to protect my focus.

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Reflection of Justice and Health Conference, 2019, Sydney

I was glad to have attended the Sydney Justice and Health conference at the start of this week.

What were the key take away messages from this conference?

First of all, on a fundamental level, the conference brought me back to the first impulse I had towards epidemiology – understanding the health issues of prisoners, notably HIV, in my country. Back in 2009, I wanted to apply for what was known as a Sach’s fellowship to undertake research in the field, just before graduation from undergrad. The fellowship would have given me a year of funding. After the conference, I understood that was perhaps a far too ambitious aim for a 23 year old undergraduate student. Just obtaining authorization to enter the prisons could have taken a year, let alone conduct the necessary survey and take the samples.

Even as a PhD project, obtaining information regarding the distribution of health states and their change over time, among those imprisoned, is far from an easy undertaking.

It was indeed humbling to learn this.

Now, I did learn something about young people in Australia. On the opening day, a professor spoke about the clear link between childhood neglect or abuse, mental health and the justice system. An infant that is neglected – ignored – by the parents is most likely to have arrested development of certain regions of the brain. The result – mental illness later in childhood and adolescence. Yet perhaps the term “illness” is not appropriate, as the young person is not infirm in the mind per se, just neglected, so mental neglect could be the term.

Now what happens to such a young person? They end up being suspended from school and may end up committing a crime that brings them into the criminal justice system. And all of this is because their brains were neglected during the first years of life. Yet it seems this story could be broken. Would it be germane to investigate then the link between mental health and the criminal justice system for young people?

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More on young people on Sydney’s trains

Out of breath, running to catch the train, I tap my card, the beep registers that I have passed, I dash down the stairs behind a youth in a red shirt ,he manages to cut inside just before the sirens before the “doors closing, please stand clear” sounds and my fate is sealed, I am too late, the doors are closing before my eyes. But then his reaches his arm through the narrowing space and they open wide once more. And I “alight” the train, as they say.
Another instance of young person violating the laws of the train network. I speak to him inside and he scoffs, stating that nothing will happen. His mate and him were smoking once, “but we were the only ones on the train” he insists. I explain how these trains were bran new, made up something about the “smoke clogging the AC vents” – I think he saw through that one – before referring to the real danger of burnt and ashy seats (they are a upholstery!), not to mention the disrespect he would be causing anyone who entered a smoky train.
From what he said, there were no repercussions to that incident, although the conductor threatened them with arrest.

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Since I became a Sydneysider, trains have been my mainstay.Here you have to ‘tap o and tap off’ to access it.
I once a young person jump the barrier. No judgement here,I have evaded the fare once myself, in fact today, merely because I was in a rush.
But I had no idea a large swathw of young people in Sydney are in juvenille justice for fare evasion. I wonder about the loss to society, through the adverse experiences that being in a youth holding faciciliy brings, and I ask: could a developed country not find a better way of dealing with youth who jump barriers?

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