The New HIV

Healthcare shouldn't be this hard to access

by George M. Johnson

I don’t think I ever could imagine a day where HIV in America would be viewed as something that isn’t a priority. Although the signs have been there for some time, it seemed that people would for the most part at least attempt to keep some kind of morality and ethics around a virus that has killed so many and continues to take lives today. But following the election of the Trump and the installation of his administration, the constant attacks against the HIV community lets us know that nothing is off table and every marginalized community is now at risk.

When I say, “The New HIV”, I am referring to the post-eighties and nineties decimation of various communities, primarily that of LGBTQ people. HIV during that time was referred to as “a death sentence.” There was no cure, and for many years there was no treatment option available. We have all seen the images of what the epidemic did to our country and to people globally. We have heard the stories of funerals of friends and family seemingly week after week for years. The stigma, the criminalizing, the shaming that was all built from that time—a trauma we still deal with but for many in power minus of the fear of mass death. An interesting twist in the fight to stop HIV.

The New HIV is often viewed through the lens of people seeing those who publicly live with HIV as people who are thriving and excelling in community. The fear that someone like Magic Johnson could have succumbed to the virus was all but removed as people watched him on television week after week, seemingly healthy, with his HIV diagnosis that shook the world, now just an afterthought for many. He faces the shaming and still gets his fair share of stigma but that fear of his death being “imminent” has dissipated, and along with it the fear that many of us who are positive still deal with “death” as something that can be a result of HIV in 2018.

It is because of this, people in power have been able to dismantle nearly thirty years of work in less than two full years in office. If the fear of the eighties and nineties were still here with HIV, there would be no way that HIV could be a party issue. But the fact that HIV is more prevalent in Black and brown communities, intersected with an administration that bolsters the white supremacist principles this country was built on, created the perfect storm to allow dismantling and defunding to even be an “acceptable” option.

The New HIV has doctors proclaiming that HIV is a chronic issue similar to diabetes. A statement that on one hand works to ease the consciences of those newly diagnosed and give them some mindset around how treatment of the virus will go on after diagnosis. However, there is a downside. Shifting HIV’s narrative into one that discusses people’s ability to live with the virus without addressing the barriers that still prevent tens of thousands from gaining access has been detrimental to continued need for federal funding and programs around HIV care.

Look no further than the removal of nearly $560 million from Ryan White—a fund to provide treatment and medication to people who are unable to attain insurance for HIV care—in order to fund the immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. This was not the first attempt to defund HIV, as the initial budget request for nearly $1.2 billion ($400 million domestically and 800 million in PEPFAR). While this defunding attempt is happening, there has been another epidemic—0pioid—that has become priority number one. Primarily because this epidemic has a white face.

The New HIV is a scary place, especially for those who rely on these systems and institutions to get treatment as well as continue prevention efforts like PrEP, free condom services, and needle exchanges. These constant attempts at defunding will in fact affect Black and brown communities and potentially lead to death, as it must be restated that people can still die from HIV. People still are dying from HIV. This community of millions is still one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in this country and needs funding to continue the work that has been done in the last thirty years.

Our community is in a new fight, one that we must win. Much like the ancestors who stormed the White House gates with the ashes of loved ones, we are going to have to be vigilant, persistent, and willing to use every tactic to ensure our community is provided for and taken care of. HIV of the past is not what it currently is today, but that doesn’t mean it is still not as important an issue for our country. Millions have died from this virus and we can’t let hate and bigotry win. It may be time for us to ACT UP again, and remind this country that we are strong, despite our marginalization.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.