Yesterday was an important day. Well, every day is important but December 1 always has special meaning – for me personally, for many others personally and in the global scheme of things – of course. It is World AIDS Day.
But has World AIDS Day lost some of its impact? Are we becoming just a touch relaxed about it all, now that fewer Jamaicans are dying? This question troubled me throughout yesterday’s events in recognition of the day. The first World AIDS Day took place in 1988 – the year that I settled in Jamaica. Little did I know then that I would become quite closely involved in efforts to control the disease, in one way or another.
Be that as it may, the breakfast hosted by the LGBT/human rights organization J-FLAG, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in partnership with the National HIV/STI Programme of the Ministry of Health and National Family Planning Board Sexual Health Agency (NFPBSHA)in Kingston yesterday gave us pause for thought. Of course it was more than sitting down eating ackee and salt fish and Johnny cakes (delicious as they were – although I was so sleepy at that early hour I focused mainly on the coffee). The well choreographed event included a discussion session at the end, without running over time. The J-FLAG team did a grand job of organizing the event.
There was a wonderful moment, right at the beginning. Young Rushell Gray of Eve for Life (who was raped at the age of nine and later contracted HIV) spoke in a clear, unwavering voice as she and two others living with HIV/AIDS welcomed the breakfasters. She is a young woman of tremendous courage.
Monsignor Richard Albert gave a refreshing multi-faith message to start us off. I recall that he recorded a video on stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS for the Stella Maris Foundation, funded by the U.S. Embassy, quite a few years ago now. Msgr. Albert and President of the Moravian Church Rev. Dr. Paul Gardner then lit a candle in memory of those who have died. It burned on the podium throughout the event – without any danger to subsequent speakers I might add.
The UN Resident Representative in Jamaica Dr. Arun Kashyap began by observing that, while there is a “semblance of optimism” on HIV/AIDS globally, some countries are still falling behind. In his message, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s observed that “the gains remain fragile,” although the tide seems to be turning.
UNAIDS Country Director Kate Spring said that since arriving in Jamaica in January, she had heard many dialogues, some of them “not comfortable,” remarking: “We are still talking about the importance of love” (yes, after all these years). Ms. Spring also directed us to the “enduring themes” of the Jamaican national anthem; we can’t go wrong if we apply those principles to our lives and the way we treat others.
Dr. Denise Chevannes, Executive Director of the NFPBSHA recognized in her remarks Dr. Jennifer Knight-Johnson of USAID Jamaica, who has worked tirelessly for the cause for many years. This year, Dr. Knight-Johnson, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy Elizabeth Lee Martinez and Chair of the NFPBSHA Dr. Sandra Knight all got tested at the Ministry of Health’s national free HIV testing event at Kingston’s Mandela Park, where services such as free contraceptive methods, HIV and Syphilis testing were provided to the public. On the issue of stigma and discrimination, Dr. Chevannes quoted Archdeacon Patrick Cunningham of the St. Luke’s Anglican Church: “What would Jesus do?”
Director of the National HIV/STI Program Dr. Nicola Skyers then gave us an update on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. While mortality rates have declined fairly steadily since 2004 with the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs, there are still areas of concern. “It is not true that HIV/AIDS is no longer a threat,” Dr. Skyers emphasized. While infections among men who have sex with men (MSM), female sex workers, the homeless, drug users, prison inmates and those with STIs remain higher than the average in Jamaica, there are new dangers. Risky behavior and transactional sex among heterosexuals is increasing. In fact, casual heterosexual cases are the second highest in numbers after MSM, putting half the general population at risk. Among those heterosexuals, eighty per cent have multiple partners. More focus is therefore needed on condom use and testing. The pressure is still on.
The man who headed Jamaica’s HIV/STI Program for some years, Dr. Kevin Harvey was guest speaker. He is currently Acting Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health, having recently had to deal with Jamaica’s Ebola preparedness and the chikungunya virus. He warmly congratulated J-FLAG for organizing the breakfast. “I am really proud,” he said, noting the extraordinary progress that has been made; a few years back it would have been impossible for J-FLAG to host such a high-profile media event. However, Dr. Harvey is still extremely concerned about what he sees as a hardening, a “decline in accepting attitudes,” which he says remains “a major barrier.” He also wants a new generation of leaders and advocates to step forward: “Who will be the champion of change in the future?” People are becoming distracted from HIV/AIDS; they are taking on other issues. A “voice for the marginalized” is always needed.
Dr. Carolyn Gomes, Executive Director of Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC), echoed Dr. Harvey’s sentiments by quoting Trinidadian writer CLR James: “Every cook can be a captain.” It’s a question of taking responsibility by exercising leadership, she said as she opened the discussion. Human rights activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers asked: “What about the seniors? They are having sex, too!” To which Founder/CEO of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) Jean Lowrie-Chin responded that her organization conducted sensitization sessions on HIV/AIDS for its membership with funding from the U.S. State Department.
In response to my overriding doubts about whether HIV/AIDS was no longer a serious focus, USAID Director Denise Herbol said she was “extremely moved” by young Rushell’s story and urged us to “focus on the young.” While some might believe the HIV/AIDS cause “passé,” said Dr. Herbol, we all know stigma and discrimination is real: “We need to humanize this issue more.” Ainsley Reid, Chairman of CRN Plus, ended the discussion on a hopeful note. A pioneer in putting a “face” to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, Mr. Reid has been living with HIV/AIDS for more than twenty years now. He announced that JN Plus (which is the Jamaican support group for people living with HIV/AIDS) will shortly be launching a new curriculum on “living with dignity.” We look forward to hearing more.
The day closed with the annual candlelight vigil at Webster Memorial United Church, held by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL). In years gone by, I recall sitting on the cool, dewy front lawn of the old-fashioned JASL house, as candles were lit and friends huddled together quietly. When the vigil ended with everyone singing the JASL family’s song “That’s What Friends Are For” there were always tears. Now the old house is no longer there, JASL has a nice new office, and the tone was so much more upbeat. The names on the quilt were fewer, and the singing was loud and stirring; not the muted but defiant voices of ten, fifteen years ago. Rev. John Scott of the Temple of Light for Spiritual Living talked about “elevation.” What a difference.
The names were still read out though, and the attendees at the vigil fell silent. Because yes – even if things are better now, in so many ways, we must still remember.
We must honor their memory.
P.S. Christmas is coming. You might consider buying the deliciously scented candles made by people living with HIV/AIDS (Life’s Work). They make wonderful gifts.