Complacency forces Aids back into the shadows

20 July 2014 - 03:03 By Mark Heywood
WHERE HAVE ALL THE VOICES GONE: The TAC is fighting for its financial survival:
WHERE HAVE ALL THE VOICES GONE: The TAC is fighting for its financial survival:

Starting today, thousands of activists, scientists and government officials will troop to Melbourne, Australia, to participate in the 20th International Aids Conference.

Melbourne, where Aids is largely an academic issue because most people who live with HIV are on treatment. Melbourne, which has a first-world health system. Melbourne, 10000km from Africa, where tens of thousands still die of Aids. Melbourne, 9088km from China, where Aids activists are harassed, threatened and imprisoned.

Once, the activist response to Aids changed the world. Now, it seems the world is trying to change the response to Aids again.

In the early 2000s, Aids was an issue that evoked our common humanity. Across the world, Aids mobilised people regardless of race, class or sexual orientation to stand up for people's equal rights to life and dignity. Aids taught us to understand sexual orientation as a matter of choice to be celebrated, not castigated.

A truly global movement for the treatment of Aids helped to establish the idea that access to life-saving medicines was a human right that should be protected by law against voracious companies that sought to make huge profits from illness and the fear of death.

Today, Aids is fast becoming just another disease of the poor, criminalised and marginalised. It is just another manifestation of global complacency about poverty and inequality.

Aids is slinking ashamedly back into the shadows, where many think it should always have been, like tuberculosis.

The antiretrovirals (ARVs) we fought for are now one more hard-to-come-by necessity of life, one more insecurity based on the reliance on governments that cannot give them jobs, quality education or dignified and effective public health services.

Once upon a time, Aids brought out the best in us. Today it reflects the worst. Aids, like apartheid, once helped privileged people to see the need to get out of their comfort zones and discover their shared humanity with the poor.

Aids helped middle-class people, with the best of intentions, to dip their toes in the dark lives of the poor, sometimes even keeping them there for a few chilly years.

But, as the movement has receded (as social movements do), they have pulled their toes out again, moved on with secure living, leaving the shadow poor once more to fend for themselves in the shadowlands.

Aids points fingers at academics who romanticised and theorised about "social movements" when they were on the rise, but deserted them when they began the difficult days of staying alive.

Aids rebukes media houses who brought Aids to light and now help to put it back in the shadows, as well as journalists who found heroes, but now ignore the real ones because they are poorer or darker.

Aids reviles editors who place something in the past when it is still in the present.

In South Africa today, defending the rights of people with Aids to access ARVs has fallen back on the same organisation that struggled to make it an issue in the first place, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

Last week, the TAC was forced to embark on another civil disobedience campaign in the Free State, a province in which too few people are on ARVs due to a collapsing health system and weak management.

The TAC is refusing to go back to its place in the shadowlands.

Finally, be aware that the great social movements that once rose to fight Aids risk becoming extinct.

For example, in a world awash with money, the TAC is struggling to get the funds it needs to keep activism alive.

It seems as if the TAC is an organisation that stands for an ethic and an image that are no longer valid currency in the donor "market" - human rights, equality and political accountability.

In this context, Aids should force you to question the duplicity of international aid, the donors who rode on Aids while it was a badge they could use for self-gratification, but whose short-sightedness and lack of enduring commitment to poor people's health is once more plain to see.

Aids also makes us doubt many philanthropic foundations that one year get on their highly educated, untouchable, unquestionable horses and dispense alms to rising social movements - and the next year criticise them when they try to do the much more difficult, much less visible, less sexy task of holding a government to the implementation of its policies.

Aids makes us see sexy aid, not shadow aid.

You might well ask what we owe to those movements that campaigned to save millions of lives and still have a job to save millions more.

You might well ask when societies will invest in their own democracy.

If you don't ask these questions, by the time you get to the 21st International Aids Conference, which will take place in Durban in 2016, the TAC may be history.

Of one thing we can assure you: we will not go quietly into the bad night.

-Heywood is a member of the TAC board of directors and a director of Section27