World AIDS Day is a day of remembrance and hope for the continued fight against HIV. While it should be primarily a matter of health, HIV has more often been a political cause, at times supported and ignored by activists and politicians. While the disease can be treated more easily today, there are still reasons why progress cannot be slowed or even stopped. There are still people who do not take measures to prevent the transmission of the disease or who are opposed to certain measures because of religious teaching. In the United States, a large number of patients do not receive the care they need because such resources are not available to them. Politics is not the only way to combat AIDS, but it is one of the most powerful actors in the continued fight against the disease.
The politics of AIDS has come a long way from the time when it was considered an epidemic. The “gay plague” was not initially a priority for the American government under Reagan. The AIDS epidemic was at its height under the conservative president, but he never really addressed it. As Salon writer Alex Pareene noted, the Great Communicator spent more time talking about hypothetical alien invasions rather than addressing the threat that was killing thousands of Americans. In an address to the United Nations, he said that perhaps only an alien invasion could unite the world into one, but made no mention of a disease that was already killing untold numbers of people around the globe. In fact, the Reagan Administration treated AIDS as something of a joke and his acting Press Secretary Larry Speakes found the topic hilarious. For thousands of Americans suffering, this had to be the ultimate blow, the pain of being ignored, marginalized and invisible just as keen as that from the disease itself.
World AIDS Day is part of a global effort to make sure that never happens again, but it still has a long way to go. While subsequent administrations of American government have not ignored the threat of AIDS like Reagan did, that does not mean that every problem is fixed. In America alone, there are an estimated 50,000 new infections every year. Over a million people live with HIV in the US and thankfully only 14 percent are undiagnosed. Drugs that suppress HIV and allow patients to lead relatively normal lives are one effective treatment, but the rates of care in America lag behind other countries. For such a dangerous disease, this is catastrophic.
Part of the reason that this situation persists is the cost of these drugs and the fact that in America today many people do not have access to insurance. While the Affordable Healthcare Act has expanded coverage to millions of people including HIV patients, it has not been a cure-all for the problem. States which refuse to implement the plan or who are not expanding Medicaid put thousands of people at risk from HIV. Because of the politics surrounding universal healthcare in America, this is a problem with no quick solution. Until health care is put ahead of partisan politics, AIDS will continue to go untreated for many people.
The stigma attached to AIDS is another part of the issues politics and has often been considered a reason to do nothing. Reagan once noted that it could be a divine punishment for promiscuity and unfortunately parts of the world have not come very far from that view. In America, 14 percent of all Americans still believe this, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey. It is often a view disseminated by public figures like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. This persistent religiously motivated opinion is far from dying out.
It is particularly deadly in some African countries and is often exacerbated by the role of religious institutions in that area. The Roman Catholic Church is famous for its condemnation of condoms which has led to more cases in Africa. The official position on condoms remains the same: the are immoral and abstinence is the only thing that should be taught to prevent infection. Nevertheless, there has been some reconsideration of that view in the past, notably from Pope Benedict who observed that condoms might be “the first step of responsibility” for those with the disease. Pope Francis is considered to be much more liberal in his own views, but whether that will translate into real progress for the Vatican is unsure. As it stands, condom use remains a highly charged political issue for the Catholic Church and it puts people at risk every day.
The extent of real political progress on AIDS is difficult to ascertain, but in general there has at least been some progress. AIDS is no longer seen as a “gay plague” and people now understand that it can affect anyone. It is not just a sexually transmitted disease, but is also prevalent among drug addicts who use needles and others. Getting away from the stigma of being a gay only disease is a big step towards treating all patients fairly. World AIDS Day should be a time when people acknowledge that there is still a long way to go, but that should not be daunting. The world has already come so far and it can keep getting better. World AIDS Day is a call to continued action and remembrance not just of those who have been lost, but that it is possible to succeed in the fight against this disease.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury