Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Orville Taylor | In the time of COVID-19, let us not forget HIV

Published:Sunday | November 29, 2020 | 12:11 AM

Thirty-eight years ago, they discovered that there was a virus that was incurable. That wasn’t the big deal because that is the nature of many viruses. You just have to ride out the storm. But then this one was deadly, and it hid inside your body like a childhood secret only to pop up years later. And we were so scared that we even were afraid of scholarships by USAID.

It didn’t help that tough American actor Rock Hudson became the face of the pandemic. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was a killer, and it was, ostensibly, a gay man disease. In Jamaica, where the stereotyped ‘80s heterosexual was ‘homophobic’, many saw it as God putting his foot down hard on the descendants of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Yet, the silver lining under that dark cloud was that HIV was spreading fast through ‘gyallis’ population, and by the time we got to the beginning of the 2000s, the level of knowledge across the society was high, and lots of persons were aware that it was simply a virus that was passed, generally, by body fluids exchanged through unprotected sex. When the Ministry of Health got into its Stigma and Discrimination campaign in the mid-2000s, what was clear was that in raw numbers, straight men and women were the largest groups of persons carrying the virus. However, it was noted that men who had sex with men (MSM) had the highest incidence per capita, with close to a third of the sampled population being HIV-positive.

Thus, a dilemma was created for the advocates, who were most interested in how people were treated (discrimination) versus how others thought of them (stigma). On the one hand, the imposing evidence was that perhaps God wasn’t creative enough to design the human body for anal penetration. This was one of the most efficient ways of getting infected. However, all unprotected sex was dangerous.

For those who wished to tag the anti-discrimination campaign to gay advocacy, they either had to keep the stereotype of it being an affliction of MSM – because of it being so prevalent in that small sub-group of the population - or accept that if affected women more than others and in particular, the working-age population. The largest vulnerable demographic is women of childbearing age – not MSM. Therefore, if we really are interested in fighting against discrimination in the fight against HIV/AIDS, that is where the energy must go, and not the privileging of MSM, as vocal as they are. Also, not enough zeal is extended towards sex workers, who are mostly women.

PRIMARY SOURCE OF INFECTION

Indeed, inter-general transmission is not a big issue among MSM. Rather, women who have heterosexual sex are the primary source of infecting the most important resources we have: our children. Furthermore, around 80 per cent of Jamaican women in this country live with children, and until science catches up with God, they are the ones who produce more.

In this fight, women have been victims on all fronts. Ironically, even the LGBTE community, with women standing in their midst, do not treat women who have sex with women (WSW) as a group of significant transmission. Separate and apart from some women also engaging in anal sex, there is a grand narrative about the statistical insignificance of female-female inoculation. This is a methodological bias because if the data collectors do not establish a template that incorporates female sexuality, then it is doomed from day one.

This is not only a data-collection issue. It is an ideological and conceptual one. In my conversations and interfaces with the gay action groups, I have humorously, but very seriously, told my MSM associates that unless they have first-hand experience of sex with a female, they will come away with a misconception of how much liquid they produce.

Last week, Radio Jamaica partnered with Jamaica AIDS Support for life in hosting a Public Forum and Research Dissemination Session to reveal key findings of a research team led by Ornella Kelly and Glenroy Murray. This paper, “HIV and Access to Justice”, is informative and should be read in detail.

Among the key findings are that reports of HIV-based discrimination have increased. However, we have come a far way, and given that there are more persons with HIV, then more persons are exposed to potential discrimination. We should also note that if we create an environment that facilitates reporting, then complaints will increase, even if the incidences do not.

Nevertheless, it might be surprising, but the Occupational Safety and Health Bill is almost law, and it is likely to create a special division of the Industrial Disputes Tribunal for discrimination. Moreover, the definition of ‘life-threatening illness’, should include health issues related to COVID-19 as well.

As World AIDS Day comes up this week, let us celebrate our successes and reach for the next milestones.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.