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How to end Aids

Monday, December 4, 2017

Three truths seemed indisputable to those who found ourselves on the HIV epidemic’s social frontlines years ago. One: Ending Aids required challenging authority, passion for sometimes life-threatening activism, and abandonment of respectability politics. Two: Ending Aids required a massive, tricky investment in cultural change. Changing who’s valued as holding solutions to doing so, the way business has always been done, and deeply-held values about sex which were killing us or others. Three: The battle to end Aids wasn’t just figurative—its survival entailed trauma and loss similar to combat.

These have all become unseated. We’ve stopped the toll of dying. Nowadays, “ending Aids” seems hardly messy—it’s a bureaucratic slogan; and a distinct public health possibility. Popping a daily HIV pill to prevent us giving or receiving it seems far less brave that gay men reinventing a sexual culture.

Some truths persist, however. Ending Aids still requires challenging authority. Only now it requires doing things that are feasible. That we just won’t.

The health minister surprised us recently, accepting a regional award for championing HIV change. He’d remained silent when his Education counterpart said making condoms available to already sexually active adolescents was promoting sex. Withholding them, with no sex education in schools, isn’t going to stop sex, pregnancy or disease. What’s worse, the law threatens healthcare providers or teachers who want to offer young people protection and counselling with seven months’ jail and a $15,000 fine if they don’t report sexually active adolescents to the police—whether the activity is coerced or not.

Minister Deyalsingh moralised at the United Nations against providing HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis locally (the pharmaceutical regimen that protects people from infection if sexually exposed). Same story about promoting sex. Worse, he’s repeatedly promised US funders to make treatment available to anyone testing HIV-positive; and still hasn’t. Last year, only ten per cent of HIV+ Trinbagonians were on antiretrovirals.

The Americans pulled a chunk of their HIV money out of T&T. We’d been sending loads of it back, year after year. Health ministry redtape makes spending it infeasible.

The Labour minister said nice World Aids Day-y things about people with HIV Friday. Her flowery words and unenforceable Workplace Policy, though, don’t offer the protection adding HIV to the Equal Opportunity Act would.

Forgive me for not applauding red-ribboned awards and platitudes. There are real things instead to be done by those in power.

I do want to pay tribute, though, to Trinbagonians I think were Champions for Change to end Aids. In the late ’90s: UWI health economist Karl Theodore warned morally hazardous Caribbean prime ministers they wouldn’t have economies if they continued to ignore HIV.

Remember when your Carnival fete MC signed off with an HIV slogan? Like “Me Too” or “Black Lives Matter,” they built collective consciousness and local ownership, as Angela Lee Loy, Amery Browne and Izola Garcia built a National Aids Co-ordinating Committee (NACC).

Grandmother Catherine Williams’s humility and quiet disclosures of her status in trainings transformed HIV leadership. I was bereft her church funeral never claimed her as dying with HIV.

Well-meaning folks stood by at the NACC’s reinauguration last December, close to World Aids Day, as a Prime Minister’s Office official had Radisson Hotel workers physically remove me. I’d been handing out something saying activists were critical at “ending Aids” tables.

Not because I wanted to sit there. I’m PTSDed out on HIV work. I actually had Bohemia’s Cyrus Sylvester in mind. Who arguably knows and has done more about HIV than most officials. And he’s reasonable. I can’t say what the NACC’s done since to end Aids. But if a fete MC asked my position in the fight, I’d say: Avoid being at tables that don’t end Aids.


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