World AIDS Day always comes immediately after we celebrate our Independence, but this year it was symbolic.
No doubt many Barbadians were still celebrating our 50th anniversary of Independence well into December 1, World AIDS Day, which this year came with the reminder that although we have much to celebrate, we also have a ton of work to do. Not only on our country but in the “fight” against HIV.
The UNAIDS global update report for 2016, available online at unaids.org, is a reminder of just that. It is a reminder that we will need more than hashtags, clever slogans and jingles as we play our part in the global effort of reaching the goal: “ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”
Of course, work outside the hashtags and sloganeering is being done, but as the report notes, “huge challenges lie ahead.” According to UNAIDS, the number of people living with HIV globally has gone from 33.3 million in 2010 to 36.7 million in 2015. Over this same period, the numbers in Latin America and Caribbean went from 1.8 million to 2.0 million.
The report also spoke to the disparities in the cases of new infections. The rate of new infections was relatively static for our region but Eastern Europe and central Asia saw an increase of 57 per cent. And, as is the case every blessed year, the report notes that the increase in new cases is disproportionately high in what we now call “key populations”, that is, “sex workers, people who inject drugs, transgender people, prisoners and gay men and other men who have sex with men [MSM].”
And, as is the case every blessed year every blessed year, there was plenty of rhetoric about “stigma and discrimination” but not much about behavioural change. That key populations are still key , is a clue that something is wrong with our current approach and primary emphasis. But nothing will change in this snowflake generation. Heaven forbid belligerent activists are triggered by the truth and we come across as “homophobic” or, worse yet, “judgmental.”
This much was clear from a story on the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. A country which no doubt contributed to the 57 per cent increase of new HIV infections for that region. We are left with the impression that if only we could eliminate “stigma and discrimination” towards MSM, then all will be well.
Could it be that this key population remains key because, every blessed year, we are busy playing politically correct word games? And we claim to love these people? Give me a break. A report from the country across the border from Kyrgyzstan, the small Chinese province of Nanchang to be precise, shows why word games are a big problem.
The HIV infection rate among Nanchang’s college students has risen annually by 43 per cent over the past five years. Unsurprisingly, over 80 per cent of the new cases were among MSM. Government officials and academics are agreed on one thing: gay-dating sites have made casual sex on campus easily accessible.
However, as is the case in the West, they disagree on how to communicate and interpret this particular data. One activist argued, “The government emphasizes the morality of sex rather than the safety of sex. If they continue to use this mentality to make public-health policies, China will pay the price one day.”
That’s cute, but China is already paying the price but not for the reason the activist thinks. As one state official countered, “No country in the world has discovered an effective way to curb the epidemic among gay men. Most students know what AIDS is and how to prevent it, but the change of behaviour remains a big challenge.”
Indeed, knowing is only half the battle and “the change of behaviour remains a big challenge” for all groups, yes, but especially for MSM. The Merovingian told us no why, no power; so let us empower ourselves with why.
Why do MSM consistently account for the majority of new cases of HIV infection in liberal, conservative, communist and capitalist societies? The CDC explains: “Anal sex is the riskiest type of sex for getting or transmitting HIV. Receptive anal sex is 13 times as risky for acquiring HIV as insertive anal sex.”
The inherent nature of the act, regardless of where it is performed, is key to this conundrum. However, this will seldom, if ever, be given the same amount of airtime as “stigma and discrimination.” Little wonder the 2030 goal will remain elusive to our snowflake generation. A generation which retreats to safe spaces to shield themselves from thought and facts. A generation which thrives on converting once noble and meaningful terms into empty words that mean and accomplish nothing.
Tossing toys out of the pram will not change the medical facts. Neither will it change the troubling trend that central Asia and Nanchang are now grappling with. Is behavioural change judgmental, overly simplistic and naïve? Are the medical facts homophobic? Who knows?
But God willing, we should let the numbers from the 2017 report and the distance we continue to put between ourselves and the 2030 goal be the judge of that.