I spoke with a South African friend of mine a few months ago while she was in Namibia. She commented on the beauty of the land and the people. She mentioned to me that she made a similar comment to a Namibian friend of hers and noted how slim so many of the people are. Her Namibian friend responded with great sadness that so much of the “slim figure” she had seen was the result of people infected with HIV/AIDS.
My friend broke down and cried on the phone. She asked me very reflectively, “What is going to happen? Are we going to awaken some day and find that no one is left?”
A great deal of attention has finally been brought to the fore on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. In Johannesburg, South Africa, for example, estimates are that 1 in 4 people are infected with HIV. Yet it seems that it has taken the massive scale of this pandemic in order to get any level of mass mobilization and governmental attention drawn to it.
The trade unions in Southern Africa are beginning to respond to this situation, in part because HIV/AIDS is becoming more visible in the workplace and, to be blunt, people are dying regularly. Nevertheless, there still remains a serious level of denial in many quarters.
While there are a million and one things which can be said about HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, ranging from the issues of pharmaceutical genocide by pharmaceutical companies in the global ‘north’ to the homophobia on the part of some leaders which makes taking on HIV/AIDS all that more difficult, I have found myself thinking more and more about HIV/AIDS right here at home.
After near silence—I would argue criminal silence—during the Reagan years, HIV/AIDS came to be discussed more openly in the USA. Nevertheless, in the last few years there is this feeling one gets that HIV/AIDS has been cured in the USA. With the various drugs which have been created which prolong life and make it easier to tolerate HIV/AIDS, one could get the impression that HIV/AIDS is akin to having asthma, or, at worst, herpes, that is a chronic yet treatable syndrome.
That is not quite the case.
In the union movement, with which I am very familiar, there is almost no discussion about HIV/AIDS, after years of discussions about needle stick dangers and other blood-born matters. While in Southern Africa, as noted above, many of the union movements are beginning to integrate HIV/AIDS discussions into their education programs, here there is almost no mention of it.
But the larger problem, as a HIV/AIDS activist colleague of mine said to me recently, is that in order to truly discuss HIV/AIDS, one must discuss sex, and here we run into a few problems.
The USA probably holds the record when it comes to hypocrisy on matters relative to sex. We advertise it on TV, magazines, and promotional items for store sales. We have it on virtually every soap opera. It is implicit on prime time. We encourage, in a manner which is nothing short of perverse, a connection between sex, murder and assaults on women. Yet, at the same time, we have to fight to have it discussed in our schools, and many of our religious institutions continue to treat sex as if it is a foul, dirty practice that should not be explored in proper company.
It is once again a time for a clarion call to mobilize around HIV/AIDS. It should mean that unless we wish to see our children dying in droves, that sex education must be a mandatory subject in public education. But we cannot stop there. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Black Panther Party promoted widespread education and testing for sickle cell anemia, a disorder ignored by the larger society. The Panthers treated this as both a medical issue and a political campaign. In New York City, the Young Lords Party, a revolutionary organization based among Puerto Ricans, did lead paint education and testing in the South Bronx, again viewing it as a medical issue and a political campaign.
While there are organizations in the USA which are currently undertaking this work, e.g., ACT UP, as well as activists from various programs within Black America, the work still remains on the margins of progressive politics. Taking up HIV/AIDS must involve not only talking about sex, but also exploring issues of gender roles and the oppression of women, as well as gays and lesbians. While we should definitely be concerned about the danger which one can face of HIV/AIDS in the workplace through, for example, needle sticks and other blood born contagions, this is simply not enough. Without addressing sex, sexual practices, gender roles and oppression we are doing nothing more than kidding ourselves.
I have a daughter on the verge of her teen years. Each time I look at her I pray that we began early enough talking with her about sex, HIV/AIDS, and, yes, love. Along with billions of other parents, I cannot conceive of waking up one morning and she is not here.
Copyright © 2001 Bill Fletcher, Jr. All Rights Reserved.