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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
Aids threatens Caribbean paradise
coastal Tobago
The Caribbean has the second-highest rate of HIV worldwide

Every time I land in Tobago, I feel an enormous sense of relief.

For starters, my usual brisk walk slows down to a stroll, and that European "stress frown" seems to disappear when I hear the waves in the distance and then catch a glimpse of the beach.

It's the kind of island that you can cover from head to toe in a day.

But it's not just the beaches that are so attractive.

Tobago also has forests and deep green bays with mountainous backdrops.

As a native from Trinidad who now lives in England, I can safely say that I have been to Tobago at least 20 times, so I'm a familiar face to some.


There are only 60,000 of us now, and a lot of people have got the disease

Local islander
One immigration officer said "It's nice to see you back" when I went to get my luggage from the world's smallest conveyer belt. My flight was full of Britons, but these have not been the best times for Tobagonians.

Until recently the island was a destination that was growing in popularity, but a lack of demand has forced some airlines to pull out.

Hotels like the new Hilton are big, lonely places with just a handful of guests.

Island gripped

There is little sign of life on the windswept, black sand beach - just the soothing rustle of the coconut trees.

Even the place that I stay in has become a shadow of the busy bustling guest house that it used to be. My friend Mark tells me business is bleak.

But one place where some Tobagonians are doing a brisk trade is in the making of coffins - and they're not only for the elderly. They are for many age groups.

The reason why people are dying is because they aren't practicing safe sex, and HIV has gripped the island to the extent that some say it could devastate it, in a way that no hurricane can.

The Caribbean already has the second-worst rate of infection worldwide, after Sub Saharan Africa, but that message is only now beginning to be taken seriously.

sea off Tobago
Unprotected sex is costing many islanders their lives

One thing is clear, more people are worrying about what will happen to the country's workforce, and worse still who will produce the next generation of Tobagonians.

One man in his 20s told me: "I don't know where the next generation will come from. There are only 60,000 of us now, and a lot of people have got the disease."

The thing about HIV and Aids is that you can't see it, and especially in Tobago, where island life continues at a relaxed pace.

Shame

But everybody that I talk to is fully aware about Aids.

Many people don't realise that they have it till it's too late, others retreat to their beds and hope for the best.

Families who have been affected often don't even admit that a relative died of the disease. I met one man in his twenties who told me that six of his friends had already died from Aids.


One girl fortunately avoided incest despite numerous advances on her by her stepfather

His other friend, a big handsome fellow with a broad smile, said: "You always put you're gloves on before you get in the ring, that's the only way to beat this thing."

But one of the most shocking things I was told was by a girl, who fortunately avoided incest despite numerous advances on her by her stepfather.

She's one of the lucky ones, because as she told me, incest is a big problem on the island.

The girl in question is now a mother who is extremely protective of her own child. She went on to explain that the other problem is adultery carried out by married men who tend to sleep with younger girls.

That combination could be disastrous, because if the father catches the virus or has it, then the disease could be passed on to his wife and his daughter as well as the girl with whom he committed adultery.

Grim future

The harsh truth is that unless something is done to deal with Tobago's Aids problem then the island's main workforce will no longer be there.

Most people who are infected are between the ages of 25 and 44.

Undoubtedly more people are listening to the message, that safe sex is the only sex to have - but for many it's simply too late.

With few proper drugs to treat HIV and Aids, most are condemned to a very tragic end, and no amount of prayers can save them.

Because if there is one thing that millions of people who have the disease now know, it's that Aids doesn't discriminate.

See also:

10 Jun 02 | Africa
06 Jun 02 | Business
14 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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