Hot Off the Press: Recipe for Catastrophe - Michael P. De Guzman

The Politics of AIDS
by Peter Gill
Viva Books; 222 pages

Michael P. De Guzman

The first thirty or so pages of The Politics of AIDS reads like a sequel to And the Band Played On (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987), Randy Shilts’ lucid and compelling account of the American government’s reactions and responses in the first years of the AIDS epidemic. The story told by Shilts is as old as the AIDS epidemic itself, but it remains significant today because the impact of the actions of those involved early on are still being felt today. If anything, Peter Gill’s book can be considered a sequel in the truest sense of the word: dealing with the same issue (the government’s response and reaction to AIDS) but widening the scope (the world) and expounding on the previously presented problems (prejudice, religion, morality, economics, etc.). 

The book asks why and how AIDS has managed to kill 25 million people around the world in 25 years, considering the preventable nature of HIV infection. The 40 million people infected with HIV did not have to be infected, the book posits, and then calls individuals and institutions worldwide to account. 

The Bush administration, allied with the Christian Right, has joined the Vatican in promoting abstinence and fidelity as a health strategy. Scientific findings were taken out of context and rehashed to fit this paradigm, ignoring evidence informed research and studies. The President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) under George W. Bush became a tool to impose morality in inappropriate areas like healthcare and education, changing the nature of foreign aid. 

Many African leaders have deliberately ignored the crisis. Gender inequality proved to be a greater pandemic as African women were made more vulnerable to HIV by government policies and cultural practises that prevailed over accurate information about HIV and AIDS. Irresponsible public statements made by high level officials only clouded the public’s perception of HIV infection and AIDS. South Africa has even withheld life-saving drugs from its people, promoting un-proven treatments like garlic and allowing misconceptions on HIV and AIDS to persist instead. Britain has promoted concerns for AIDS in Africa, but has neglected its duty at home. However, compared to the Americans, the British response to AIDS was still better. 

The book asserts that the main beneficiaries of the epidemic have been the big pharmaceutical companies of North America and Europe which manipulated the protection of their patents and profits at the expense of the poor. The efforts of Indian companies to break this stranglehold have so far been thwarted. This story shows the devastating results when economic considerations take precedence over public health and welfare. Vigilance in this area is paramount. 

Some countries have been winning the battle against AIDS, but lessons learned from their experiences are being ignored. Thailand has reversed the trend of HIV infections by being bold and upfront about addressing social taboos that contributed to its epidemic. However, condom use promotion contradicts the agenda of the Christian right and the Vatican. In Africa, clergymen have been forcibly retired from the church hierarchy for promoting the C in the ABC of HIV prevention. American public health officials were intimidated against speaking out on the benefits of condom. 

Towards the end, the book points out that if AIDS was dealt with as a purely public health issue and not within a moralistic context, it wouldn’t have become the catastrophe that it is today. Because AIDS raised sexual and then moral issues, the judgment of politicians became clouded and undermined their ability to respond in the public’s interest. Gill writes, ‘What began as a common prejudice against gays in the 1980s has mutated into objections to other lifestyles and practices, providing public officials with more excuses for failing to carry out their public health duties’. 

I remember feeling dumbfounded after reading And The Band Played On years ago. Like how one would feel if one has witnessed a vehicular accident. The question in my mind then was, ‘How could they have done that?’ America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, failed to protect its own citizens from something mundane, in this case, a health problem. Then I got angry, becoming all the more determined to do my part to curb the epidemic in my own country. Now, after reading Gill’s book, I am still angry. Political climates have changed in many places worldwide, but the old prejudices remain. The people Gill wrote about are still around. Many of them are still in power, wielding their ignorance like a flaming sword over a hapless public.

Many things have happened in the last twenty-five years that AIDS has been with us, but it seems that the things we have learned are fewer.

I am more than angry. 

I am indignant. 

Michael P. De Guzman, is a freelance consultant in Cambodia. His areas of expertise include technical writing, HIV/AIDS, counselling, sexuality, IEC/BCC and graphic design. He also writes poetry and fiction in two languages: English and Filipino. His work has been published in magazines and newspapers in his home country. His first book, a collection of short stories, is set to be released in 2008. His short story ‘Epiphany’ will be out next month in Ladlad 3, an anthology of Filipino gay writing.