Let’s end the epidemic by addressing racial disparities
by George M. Johnson
It’s been thirty-plus years of the HIV epidemic and although we are nowhere near an “end,” we can say that progress has been made in the fight to end the virus. From no treatment, to AZT, to one-a-day pills that can not only suppress the virus to an undetectable level, but aid in the betterment of life expectancy and quality, HIV has become a shadow of the devastation it used to be. However, this narrative is not the same across the board in terms of the black populations in certain areas of the country that are being infected and affected at an alarming rate.
When we look at the HIV epidemic, it disproportionately affects those who are living in the South, especially black MSM and black women. As someone who works in HIV and living with the virus, I find it alarming that thirty years later, we still don’t have a better nationwide system of treatment and care. We struggle across the board with information sharing as local health departments and federal entities don’t always utilize the same databases making it hard to provide help and immediate services from the North to those in the South and vice versa. Although funding is made available to Health Departments across the country, the highest rates of infections still lie in the area where the majority of funding is created and disseminated.
The CDC, located in Georgia, has some of the highest rates of infection happening right outside its own doors. As the governing body of much of HIV funding, they have done a great job of ensuring that adequate funding has been available for combating HIV; however providing funds for programming and testing is only the first step. The South unfortunately has a mixture of problems including lack of education on the virus, stigma, and racism, which creates a lack of resources for those who must do work. Add in homophobia and you create the perfect environment for riskier sex situations, which directly correlates to higher infection rates. The Centers for “Disease Control” needs to do just that at all costs, even to the extent of taking upon themselves to provide the assistance to those looking to build agencies or fund and build clinics itself and provide workers and services to fight the epidemic in those areas.
For me and many others, HIV is not just a healthcare issue but a social justice issue. Let’s be clear, if white gay men and white women were the highest two rates of infection in the country this would not be a conversation needing to be had. Every entity with a dollar, a sponsor, a worker, or a politician in the back pocket would go life and limb ensuring that the epidemic was no more if white folks were being infected at our rates. Race plays a major role in the lack of urgency taken, as marginalized populations are often left out to pasture when decisions are being made that affect us the most. Furthermore, without allies from the other side willing to raise their voices on our behalf it often falls on deaf ears concerning the needs of our community and our demands for the proper resources and funds needed to ensure that our people are getting the same equity of health as our white counterparts.
It is hard for me to watch so many of my people living in a different region than I am struggle to obtain services that in northern areas are just part of the normal continuum of care, with ranging levels of access and care providers fulfilling the needs of the community. This concern for the South though has not gone silent within our own community and the mobilization efforts are finally starting to make some headway in getting these services in the area. I am glad to say that I know personally of many who are establishing community-based organizations to begin this work to ensure that this epidemic doesn’t continue to grow. We work with the tools we have to provide educational resources and testing to those areas in effort to normalize the need for HIV treatment and for people to not feel shamed and stigmatized to the point of making risky sexual choices.
Suffice it to say, I thank the CDC for the work that it has done over the past thirty-plus years to make the virus a treatable, manageable illness, but more work needs to be done. The CDC needs to step up to the plate and actively create the resources needed in the areas that are still affected and infected the most. You have already laid out the facts of how HIV will affect over fifty percent of black gay men during their lifetime. Now let’s begin working towards reducing that number and creating programs and clinics to help end this virus, starting with your own backyard.
George M. Johnson is an HIV advocate who works for Us Helping Us, People into Living. Inc., located in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pride.com, Musedmagonline.com, Blavity.com, Rolereboot.org, and Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @IamGMJohnson.