The stigma surrounding AIDS
Some of the most often quoted words regarding HIV/AIDS are the words of Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda, who himself is HIV positive. He said: “It is now common knowledge that in HIV/AIDS, it is not the condition itself that hurts most (because many other diseases and conditions lead to serious suffering and death), but the stigma and the possibility of rejection and discrimination, misunderstanding and loss of trust that HIV positive people have to deal with.” (You can read much more about what I wrote on this topic on page 17 of the document which you can download here.)
As part of our home-based caring activities, we also try and eradicate the stigma clinging to people with HIV and AIDS. If we don’t succeed in doing this, people will never be willing to face the facts about their condition and they will also not be willing to be tested to determine their HIV status. By openly speaking about HIV and AIDS and also by openly caring for those who are infected, I believe that we are breaking down many barriers which exist between those who are HIV-positive and those who are HIV-negative. For us this is a very important part of our work.
However, the fear of stigmatisation causes another problem, in that we don’t want to acknowledge AIDS for what it is. Something which I hear constantly nowadays is that people are told that AIDS is not a death sentence. I beg to differ. AIDS is a death sentence. With early diagnosis, correct eating habits, a change in life-style and proper medication the actual death can be postponed for many years. But for the moment (and probably for many years to come), to have AIDS means that you are going to die from this disease (unless if you die from some other unnatural cause.) I don’t think it is stigmatisation to tell someone who is HIV-positive that this is very, very bad news. In Africa of course, the news is even worse, because most people do not have money to eat the correct food (lots of vegetables and fruit for example) and to get proper medicine is just out of the question for the majority of the people. I read in the Swazi newspaper a few days ago that 33,000 Swazis have actually been sentenced to death because they cannot obtain the correct medicine for AIDS in Swaziland.
Although I make a strong case in the mentioned document that we do not have the right to look down upon those who are HIV-positive as if they are all sinners, the fear of stigmatisation also prevents us from acknowledging the facts that the majority of people who are HIV-positive did indeed get it from some kind of immoral act. Yes, I know all the arguments about people becoming HIV-positive through no fault of their own – in fact I argue for them in the mentioned document. But I’m referring to the majority of people who are HIV-positive who did contract this disease through a wrong choice. The argument most often heard is about the woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, and after nobody was willing to cast the first stone, Jesus said: “…neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). But there is a difference in not acknowledging sin and not condemning a person. We don’t want people to be condemned because of wrong choices they had made (and to be quite honest, how many of us reading this also make wrong decision?) But only by acknowledging the wrong in their behaviour could we cause a change in life-style to take place. This is not stigmatisation. This is acknowledging reality but without condemnation.
I could therefore sit next to someone who has AIDS, explain to that person what causes AIDS, try and determine where and how that person had become infected and work through all the issues, without stigmatising the patient and at the same time without using such kind words that the truth is never told. In an attempt not to stigmatise someone, I believe that we may be dishonest. And in the eyes of God this is also wrong.
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