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A politics of aid for AIDS

When my piece on HIV was run in Opinion (“HIV and its cultural mutation,” 4/4/14), someone posted a comment agreeing with my stand that persons living with HIV (PLHIVs) should be spared from stigma, “but they should not solicit sympathy from people or get special support from government…” Since the early recorded cases of AIDS in the 1980s, and the controversial book “And the Band Played On” by American journalist Randy Shilts, the virus has caught not only media attention but also paranoia. The support of the late Princess Diana for the National AIDS Trust to raise awareness on prevention upped the ante of the advocacy to a royal flair. Of course, the Diana magic worked so well that celebrities deemed invitations to grace AIDS fundraising events as opportunities for favorable publicity. The media exposure of celebrity activists inevitably elicits sympathy for stars who have lost friends to the pandemic.

On May 18, the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial will be celebrated at the University of the Philippines’ Sunken Garden. Started in 1983, it is observed every third Sunday of May to raise awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS at the grassroots. As it gains wider popularity, the memorial has also mobilized more activists, corporations, and celebrities to join the campaign.

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For this year’s memorial the UP Diliman Student Council is collaborating with Project Red Ribbon, an informal—yet growing—network of PLHIVs, their families, advocates, medical practitioners, and nongovernment organizations. As of this writing, 24 organizations from the business, government and nonprofit sectors have confirmed participation on Sunday. I foresee success as people of diverse backgrounds contribute time and resources for the preparation. Now that I’m no longer a mere onlooker—as I was years ago—perhaps I’m just too close to the center of frenetic action to ooze with a rosy forecast.

Little by little the issue of AIDS is being given the attention it deserves, and I’m optimistic it will become a mainstream national health issue like dengue and MERS-CoV. Someday soon we will talk openly about AIDS without balking as though it were taboo. We will listen to levelheaded, proactive discussions from different platforms. With the publicity AIDS activists are winning, they also gain political leverage and financial support here and abroad. Despite some of its contested provisions, Republic Act No. 8504 (or the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998) is still a watershed showing how much we’ve achieved. Myths about the virus still proliferate, but the acronym has been ingrained in the public consciousness.

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This leads me to an inevitable implication: With publicity come pots of cash. As the campaign draws the media and convinces prospective philanthropists of the sorry state of indigent PLHIVs, the advocacy also moves to a level of stewardship beset by challenges similar to those faced by relief efforts for victims of natural calamities.

Sadly, the situation is rife for occasions for corruption. For instance, the sale of US military MREs (meals ready to eat) in Makati embarrassed Filipinos as parallel irregularities had been uncovered by the international media. If those badly hit by “Yolanda” battled hunger, those among us who were less affected struggled against cynicism. We’re sure of our empathetic feelings toward them, but we’re not certain if our help reached those in need. Tantamount to a smear on the image of nonprofits, the dubious NGOs of suspected pork barrel scammer Janet Napoles include foundations for farmers. It appears that our homegrown crooks have perfected the craft of milking the misery of others. Unlike farmers and the urban poor, PLHIVs are not yet a popular cause for mainstream politicians, so we didn’t really expect to find them among the list of shady NGOs. But we can’t be certain about the future.

Here’s a cautionary tale from South Africa. In 2000, British doctor Ann Barnard registered Ingwavuma Orphan Care as a nonprofit that identifies children whose parents died of AIDS, looks for foster parents, feeds and shelters them, and, if resources permit, funds their tuition and school uniforms. To facilitate the identification of orphans and speed up the process of foster-care grants, Ingwavuma hired Johnson Gwala as project coordinator to oversee operations and visit needy families. During his stint the program rapidly developed and was even featured on TV and The Sunday Times of South Africa.

As the program received media attention, it also obtained more funding, and Gwala came to be fondly known as the “Angel of the AIDS Orphans.” Then things began to change: Gwala bought a private car and allegedly operated a tuck shop which retailed food in far-flung villages. Though Barnard suspected he was stealing from Ingwavuma, she and the board had no evidence to prove their hunch—until he was caught using the organization’s gasoline card for his own car. After Gwala was fired, they discovered that he had received almost $5,000 from a grant for which he applied at the British Council in behalf of Ingwavuma. However, the organization did not know about it, and nobody knew where the money was used.

I don’t aim to sound reportorial about the present or accurately predictive of the future. How I wish these musings on the escalated challenges of the AIDS campaign will remain academic. Despite our fresh memory of bogus NGOs and hawked relief goods, hopefully the Ingwavuma experience will be animpossibility for Filipino PLHIVs.

 

Cyril Belvis is a PhD candidate at the Asian Center, UP Diliman. Tested reactive since December 2013, he continues to teach university-level literature courses.

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TAGS: AIDS, AIDS Candlelight Memorial, HIV, HIV Stigma, Project Red Ribbon, Sunken Garden, University of the Philippines’ Sunken Garden, UP Diliman Student Council
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