Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through a Great Epidemic

Jonny Steinberg

Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through a Great Epidemic

At the end of a steep gravel road in one of the remotest corners of South Africa's Eastern Cape lies the village of Ithanga. Home to a few hundred villagers, the majority of them unemployed, it is inconceivably poor. It is to here that award-winning author Jonny Steinberg travels to explore the lives of a community caught up in a battle to survive the ravages of the greatest plague of our times, the African AIDS epidemic. He befriends Sizwe, a young local man who refuses to be tested for Aids despite the existence of a well-run testing and anti-retroviral programme. It is his deep ambivalence, rooted in his deep sense of the cultural divide, that becomes the key to understanding the dynamics that thread their way through a complex and traditional rural community. As Steinberg grapples to get closer to finding answers that remain maddeningly just out of reach, he realizes that he must look within himself to unravel certain riddles. 4.1 out of 5 based on 8 reviews
Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through a Great Epidemic

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Health & Medical, Society, Politics & Philosophy
Format Paperback
Pages 240
RRP £8.99
Date of Publication January 2009
ISBN 978-0099524199
Publisher Vintage
 

At the end of a steep gravel road in one of the remotest corners of South Africa's Eastern Cape lies the village of Ithanga. Home to a few hundred villagers, the majority of them unemployed, it is inconceivably poor. It is to here that award-winning author Jonny Steinberg travels to explore the lives of a community caught up in a battle to survive the ravages of the greatest plague of our times, the African AIDS epidemic. He befriends Sizwe, a young local man who refuses to be tested for Aids despite the existence of a well-run testing and anti-retroviral programme. It is his deep ambivalence, rooted in his deep sense of the cultural divide, that becomes the key to understanding the dynamics that thread their way through a complex and traditional rural community. As Steinberg grapples to get closer to finding answers that remain maddeningly just out of reach, he realizes that he must look within himself to unravel certain riddles.

Published in America under the title Sizwe's Test.

Reviews

The Financial Times

Alec Russell

[An] extraordinarily powerful and poignant book... As well as Aids, it is also about race, tradition and culture. It sheds yet more light on the agonising legacy of apartheid. It also, mentioning it deftly in passing, puts into context the ruinous Aids policies of former president Thabo Mbeki, who oversaw the years of obfuscation on Aids.

02/03/2009

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The Times

Rachel Holmes

Steinberg commands the narrative deftly, with inquisitiveness, energy, and wry self-deprecation. He thinks with the bracing scepticism of the cultural sociologist and writes with the detached coolness recommended in Greene's dictum that objectivity requires an icicle in the heart... What compels is the sustained, intimate, yet fractured dialogue between Sizwe and Jonny - black man and white man from utterly divergent backgrounds - who share nonetheless a recognition of the stigma of disgrace imposed upon HIV-positive people.

09/01/2009

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The Washington Post

Douglas Foster

Steinberg has a finely tuned ear for the way real people talk and think. In a few places there's too much of Sizwe's shifting moods and not enough about the women - volunteer health promoters - who have done much to bring universal access to treatment. But Sizwe's transformation from someone who initially viewed Reuter and his supporters as a kind of secular cult to someone who accompanies ill friends and relatives to clinics and urges them to get tested is compelling... Nearly 30 years after the AIDS epidemic began, this provocative account offers something genuine, important and new.

03/06/2008

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The Economist

The Economist

In an elegant and accessible style, Mr Steinberg gives human faces and voices to fear, shame, stigma and a public health system that is failing its people, while placing it all in a broader context. His book is essential to understanding the visible and invisible barriers that undermine the fight against AIDS in South Africa.

13/03/2008

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The Independent

Richard Canning

The book's US title – Sizwe's Test – personalises Steinberg's learning curve. But it unhelpfully worries away at one individual's responsibilities, rather as Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On obsessed over the irrelevant figure of "Patient Zero". Steinberg's account of the roles played by shame, superstition, faith in traditional healing, bureaucratic indifference, incompetence and fear of the (usually) white doctor-interloper with his needle, is jaw-dropping and unforgettable.

19/01/2009

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The Observer

Elizabeth Pisani

Steinberg is a good journalist, which means he can spot a story, and a skilful writer of narrative non-fiction, which means he can spin a yarn. South Africa is the continent's wealthiest country and arguably its strongest democracy, yet its government, and the voters who elected it, have allowed HIV, a preventable, sexually transmitted infection, to rage through the population more or less unchecked. That's surely a story... Steinberg's thought-provoking and deeply human book is an eloquent reminder that we can't use logic to predict people's behaviour.

18/01/2009

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The Daily Telegraph

Tim Butcher

The book is written in bite-sized sections, and Steinberg makes accessible an often opaque subject. He offers no grand conclusion, no quick solution. HIV/Aids is too complex a disaster for that. But Steinberg’s book made me wiser about how the pandemic has caused so much death in South Africa. I used to blame the clumsy leadership of Mbeki but Three Letter Plague shows how the problems in the fabric of South Africa have made Mbeki’s lack of leadership all the more devastating.

09/01/2009

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The New York Times

Adam Hochschild

For all its sharp insights and value, “Sizwe’s Test” has one serious flaw. Steinberg devotes only a perfunctory few pages to Thabo Mbeki... To play down Mbeki’s stubborn obscurantism in a book about AIDS in South Africa is like writing a book about Americans and global warming while ignoring seven years of stubborn obscurantism on that subject from the White House.

10/02/2008

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