Curtain Raiser

AIDS & the Callous Commander, Colltalers

The president ‘does not care.’ That’s the reason given by six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS to resign, last week. The news, buried by the loud Trump sideshow, as it’s been the norm lately, sheds light on two issues: public indifference and, well, Trump.
The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had a devastating effect when it broke out in the 1980s. It’s still incurable, despite effective therapies to control it, and remains a stealth leading killer in the U.S. And Trump’s attitude is akin that of the president then, Ronald Reagan.
AIDS joins now the roster of issues that the current administration seems bent on walking back in time. To decades of progress in foreign relations, immigration, human and reproductive rights, the environment, and so many other issues, add yet another scourge bound to metastasize again due to mismanagement and neglect. Not that AIDS needed help growing back in the U.S., where statistics are astonishing.
One in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Preventions study. Such high figure would outnumber the whole population of an African country such as Swaziland, as a recent NYTimes story put it. The paper also compared that with the risk for Americans in general, which is one in 99, and for white gay and bisexual men, one in 11.
Of the 36.7 million people living with HIV globally, 1.1 million are Americans. And while rates of infection have been declining overall, with some countries actually radically reducing their numbers, new cases are not declining as fast in the world’s wealthiest nation.
Experts have been struggling to explain this situation, since after its explosion, AIDS had understandably become more prevalent in poor countries, where public health and education are low government priorities. Some believe that people have become overconfident on the treatments, without realizing that, first, they are not a cure, and second, they’re not even an option for a segment of the affected.
That obliviousness, prominent among one the top groups of newly infected – ages 13 to 21 years old – may be a consequence of years of declining budgets for public health policy and lowering education levels in the U.S., which begin to mirror that of some African countries.
One in seven of that over a million Americans doesn’t even know they’re infected, according to the CDC. And those who’re in school are not getting much of an education about AIDS, a direct result of increasing religious influence on public school policies across the nation.
If that side of the equation is tragic, and can be credited for many of the new cases reported, the part about ‘does not care’ is even worse. It’s one thing a president to align the priorities

of his administration according to a wealthy minority and corporate agenda. But it’s another to ignore or take steps to divert resources, both intellectual and material, from a disease with potential to cause a major economic disruption.
To have an idea, the average annual cost of AIDS for an insured person – definitely a minority of the infected, nowadays – was estimated between $19,000 and $23,000, in 2006 figures. That’s a $25 billion annual bump on the U.S. budget, if our math checks in. Given that most infections are affecting the poor and the unemployed, such cost, and its impact on communities, is necessarily grossly underestimated.
To be fair, the Council is an advisory body, meaning that it offers a range of possible strategies to minimize and, hopefully, reduce rates of infection. But if the Tweeter-in-Chief is busy er tweeting, or defending himself of mounting charges, then the advisers did the right thing.
Plus, their resignation at least got a moment in the headlines, which is more than they were getting in a committee that doesn’t have the president’s ears. But what’s obvious is how good that after hours soundbite on CNN can be to refocus public attention: not good at all.
AIDS has experienced an interesting, if no less tragic, curve. When it first exploded among middle to upper class Americans, it forced changes in the way public health policy is conducted and new therapies developed. Thanks to LGBT activism, a callous collusion of insensitive political leaders and profit-hungry laboratories had to change, even if just a little, the way they approach a major health crisis.
Then, in the 1990s, as it became more contained among drug abusers and sex workers, it predictably started to migrate to impoverished nations around the world. Its victim template switched from an educated gay man to a poor African mother, who’d have contracted the virus through rape. It was the moment when Western economies and, again, independent activism, helped bring forth a successful treatment.
That’s when something very human happened too: communities at risk became relapse in controlling factors known to lead to increased infections. And even as a HIV diagnostic was no longer a death sentence, new cases started to mount. Still, few explain why the growth in the U.S.
Regardless of its historical line, though, AIDS spoke about prejudice and cultural gaps, official and corporate insensitivity, and downright human values of empathy. More than many other afflictions, it exposed and highlighted realities even more cruel than its physical effects.
It was a major turning point when Reagan and members of his administration were caught making snark comments about a disease that, by then, was killing almost everyone infected. For it unravelled the hypocrisy hidden behind a carefully built public image of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ It unmasked Reagan’s phony ‘good guy’ PR machine, plus, it enlisted the American people in the quest for finding the cure.
As it becomes somehow evident that Reagan 102 has arrived – even if Trump is not as skilled a politician, he’s still an effective performer – let’s hope that the walkout of advisory officials also ignites a policy retooling, and specially funding, that may determine an end for AIDS.
As with everything, half the reasons we care about an issue is that it directly affects us, or someone we know. The other ‘two thirds,’ as Yogi Berra would put it, is because we care about everybody else. Or should. We all know what the president cares about – hint: it starts with a D or T. Let’s show how much we care about each other. By the way, it’s getting hot out there. Drink lots of fluids and get a tan. WC

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One thought on “Curtain Raiser

  1. Jeslyn says:

    Through a retweet was in your Gagera…..Very interesting initiative. Specifically for Thessaloniki, two interesting books:1) Thessalonica. City of Ghosts Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 του Mark Mazower2) The trade of Thessaloniki in the 18th century by Nikos SvoronosFell!

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