Friday, January 21, 2011

A personal take on addressing the HIV/AIDS issue

I remember when the HIV/AIDS epidemics first became widespread and everybody – from governments to civil organizations – panicked. They devised all kinds of campaigns to fight against the spread of this terrible disease. They told people that HIV was an incurable disease that if you got it, you were pretty much given a death sentence. People who had HIV were drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, and people who led rather impure lifestyles. HIV was something that everyone had to fear. People were also led to fear those who suffered from it. Thus the public learned to be both afraid of the virus as well as the people who carried it. HIV/AIDS sufferers became rejected by their family and ostracized by their community.

The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is still prevalent in many countries, and in Thailand, it is also present. Unfortunately, old impressions die hard and nowadays, HIV/AIDS sufferers continue to be feared and avoided by others. A few days ago, Joe, an AIDS patient at the Mother of Perpetual Help Center told me that when he was in the hospital the week before, none of the patients in the ward dared to come close to him. Everytime a new patient came, the patients already there would warn them about Joe. “I was so embarrassed the whole time I was in the hospital,” he said.

It is this reality that has inspired me to create activities in my ministry that aim at bringing people together to bridge differences and misunderstandings. While I believe that in order to solve a problem, one must address it head on. Thus, matters related to HIV/AIDS need to be taught to the people, especially students in school. Thepublic need to hear the truth about HIV/AIDS and need to hear the stories of those who suffer from this disease. People with and without HIV/AIDS need to share with each other about their experiences to create sympathy and understanding between one another.

On the other hand, I also believe that somethings don’t need to be constantly talked about. People need a chance to live just as people, doing the things that people do, and relating to each other not based on labels or blood test results, but based on the essence of being human.

Thus is the nature of many of the activities that I create in my work. Youth with HIV do volunteer work beside those who do not have the virus. Parishioners in our church who come from the general community worship side by side with AIDS patients from the hospice located next to the church. Children from the community engage in activities alongside those from the home for orphans with HIV. Young people with and without HIV cook and eat with each other whenever they come for group meetings.

The focus of the activity at hand is the worship, the learning, the working, the sharing of the food, etc.. The focus is not on HIV/AIDS and it doesn’t have to be. Our activities let people be people. It is not hiding the fact about HIV/AIDS. Nor is it avoiding the issue. Everyone who comes to the church, or to the class, or to the activity knows the backgrounds of the people around them. Yet, they come because they accept the people that they meet and they enjoy the activity that they are doing. It is not uncommon for a youth who doesn’t have HIV to remind her friend that it’s time to take her retro-viral medicine. Nor is it uncommon for a casual conversation between a young person and a hospice patient to revolve around the patient’s health problems.

Will this have a positive effect on the HIV/AIDS issue? I believe it can. I believe by simply being together, the acceptance will be both ways. People without HIV/AIDS will come to realize that they don’t have to be afraid of those who have the virus. On the other hand, people who are infected with HIV may realize that it is OK for them to be a part of society, and that there is a place for them in the community. The issue of HIV/AIDS acceptance will improve when the community opens their heart to those who are positive with the virus. And it will also improve when HIV+ people do not isolate themselves from society. My role, I believe, is to facilitate the opportunity for such meetings to take place, so that understanding, sympathy, and acceptance can take shape and grow.

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