Not the answer
I’ve been an AIDS advocate for 20 years now, just 10 years shy of how long HIV/AIDS has been here in the Philippines. I got into it because as a gay man I thought it affected me directly. In the 90s the NGO community made significant inroads towards addressing the epidemic, especially among the people who existed in the fringes of respectable society–gay men, sex workers, drug users. For a long time, the epidemic was considered ‘low and slow’ even by the international community. I think this proved detrimental because it bred complacency. Government didn’t feel the urge to invest into the national HIV/AIDS program. International donors waited too long. NGOs struggled and vanished due to bankruptcy. And the gains of the early programs on HIV prevention were lost to a new generation of young people who were ignorant to the seriousness of HIV/AIDS.
I was in Cambodia from 2004 to 2010. There was a steady flow of Filipino professionals who went to Cambodia to work in its nascent industries. Many of them were gay and it fell on us ‘older gays’ to warn them of Cambodia’s situation, AIDS-wise. The stories they told of their sexual escapades in Manila made us wonder why young gay men would act so recklessly. Of course we understood how young people can feel invulnerable. I mean, we were all young once. But their Hedonistic excursions seemed to occur within an environment that seems to have no regard for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections at all.
When I returned to Manila, the epidemic has changed, and not for the better. People I knew were getting diagnosed as HIV+; young people I knew were dead or dying. There seemed to be a wave of young men dying of “pneumonia” or “tuberculosis”. The Philippine AIDS epidemic is no longer ‘low and slow’, it is simmering and waiting to blow up like some volcano.
Suddenly HIV/AIDS is on the spotlight. Donors are increasing efforts to fund programs even as our government hesitates in pouring its resources to curb the epidemic. Our AIDS Law, which inspired other countries, has been revised to fit the changing nature of the epidemic. All seemed poised to take action.
And then I heard Health Secretary Ona is pushing for mandatory testing as a way to address the AIDS epidemic. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I was transported back in time, when people didn’t know much about HIV and expected to address it like any other epidemic. Mandatory testing is Draconian and ultimately useless in curbing HIV infection. There is a HUGE body of knowledge that supports my opinion.
But I cannot blame Secretary Ona for his statements. To my knowledge, his expertise is kidney transplantation. He is not a public health expert. HIV/AIDS is more than a medical issue. Let’s not fault Sec. Ona for seeming to be narrow-minded. He is limited by his expertise. Although, as the head of the Department of Health, he owes it to his office to know about these things, so there.
This is why I am telling my fellow advocates to focus efforts on making Sec. Ona’s advisers understand the issues relating to and relevant to HIV/AIDS in the Philippines. Let’s engage them more so they will have the chance to comprehend the issues better, which will hopefully result in less dated and idiotic pronouncements.
Also, you can let your voice be heard by following THIS LINK and signing up for the campaign to stop mandatory HIV testing. My friends at NSAP will love you for it.