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AIDS – the hi-tech disease

By Arthur Goldstuck

It’s easy for the leaders of hi-tech industries to be complacent about Aids. It’s also incredibly dangerous.

For that complacency is based on a combination of ignorance and arrogance; ignorance of the reality facing all large South African businesses, and the arrogance of believing that the more advanced a company is technologically, the more it is insulated from the ravages of the disease.

When T-Systems South Africa, as much of a bastion of hi-tech as you are going to find in this country, decided to break away from this mindset, they were shocked at what they found.

They conducted an anonymous HIV Prevalence test at 40 locations across the country, with more than three quarters of their 1000-plus workforce agreeing to be tested.

The amount of employees who tested positive was low compared to the numbers that tend to come out of the mining and manufacturing sectors, but completely unexpected for information technology: 7.2% of all employees tested were HIV infected.

Even this figure would, in itself, fail to shake the typical executive from his hi-tech complacency. It’s when you unpack the numbers that all preconceptions have to be discarded.

“HIV/Aids is neither race specific nor job specific, CEO Wolfgang Jakob revealed at a briefing this week. “It goes through the whole organisation, from management to mid-management to team leaders to technicians. It goes through the whole country, irrespective of location. And it goes through all races. It’s not a black disease, as people like to think.”

Indeed, the most unexpected statistic was the fact that 6.3% of the white workforce was infected. The figure is close to the proportion for the black workforce, shattering one of the misconceptions about Aids in South Africa.

Now, what started out as an internal project must be dealt with as part of a business process. The spread of the disease has to be limited by advice and education, and business processes must be adapted to manage the consequences of the disease, from absenteeism to treatment cost to death.

Ironically, for T-Systems, the shock results represent a public relations coup. Not only does the project underline their social responsibility, but they now also gain thought leadership in spreading the word.

“We are releasing our results to set a positive example in order to show that HIV/Aids does affect us all,” Jakob confirms. “We would like to work together with other companies to face up to the problem and deal with it”

As Jakob points out, the results are probably representative of similar companies in the private sector. The obvious question then is, what should be done about it? Again, T-Systems have set an example. They have established a framework that draws their response into their business processes by:

* Establishing a comprehensive HIV/Aids Workplace programme;
* Focussing on a Voluntary Counselling and Testing Campaign;
* Running specific educational sessions to encourage all employees and their immediate family members to find out their individual HIV status;
* Establishing an HIV/Aids Workplace Policy that not only ensures confidentiality and non-discrimination, but also guarantees access to antiretroviral treatment via medical aid.

As important as all of these practical steps are, however, it’s the company’s attitude towards its policy that matters most. Jakob sums up what is needed:

“We will deal with the epidemic with a positive frame of mind. Our HIV/Aids Workplace Project has developed into an internal process of ours so we can tackle the HIV/Aids pandemic head-on.”

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, South Africa’ leading independent technology research organisation. He can be contacted on mailto:arthurg@internet.org.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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