The AIDS epidemic has been accompanied by negative public reactions to persons presumed, to be infected by the immunodeficiency virus (HIV). As with other epidemics throughout much of world history, such as the Bubonic plague in the XIVth century and the cholera outbreaks in the XIVth century, a stigma has been attached to AIDS. Like AIDS itself, the AIDS stigma is a global problem, existing in communities with different social, traditional and religious beliefs. Attaching a stigma to AIDS has been primarily the result of both fear surrounding contagion and preexisting prejudice against the social groups most seriously affected by the epidemic.
Concern about contagion does not only exist in the physical realm, but also extends and deepens the fear that one will be socially or morally tainted by interacting with a stigmatized individual. People tend to socialize less with people who are known to have AIDS, or those that are known to have contracted the virus through their irresponsible immoral behavior.
Negative attitudes have also been manifested in people’s behaviors. AIDS discrimination in the employment, housing, school policies and services such as health and life insurance has been widespread. From the police officers wearing elbow length rubber gloves when dealing with activists at the Third International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. and health workers sliding trays of food into the doorways of AIDS patients are clear indications of negative attitudes to people with AIDS. Employers have also refused to provide insurance coverage for employers with AIDS. Employers are beginning to rethink the benefits they pay when employees get sick or die in service. Many companies and organization are increasingly hiring staff on casual or rolling short-term contracts, thus escaping the need to pay disability, death or other benefits. Above all, people with AIDS, have experienced unwarranted demotions, dismissals and harassment in the workplace. The Terrence Higgins Trust reported the case of Mark Headley who disclosed his HIV positive status to his employers, a major supermarket chain. He was subsequently asked to leave his job because it was felt that his condition would cause offense to other staff and customers.
Property owners have refused to rent their properties to people with AODS and in some cases evicted them on baseless and flimsy reasons. Parents with AIDS have had to confront legal battles concerning child custodial and visitation rights. Family bonds have been fractured when members fall victims to the deadly disease.
The reason for the intensity of the AIDS-related stigma in the developed world does not solely rest on the fears of contagion and disease. Fundamentally, the AIDS epidemic in the US has primarily occurred in the marginalized groups such as homosexuals and drug users who share the same paraphernalia. Many people view this as an avoidable and self-inflicting tragedy and therefore less sympathy is shown to these groups. As a result, the stigma attached to AIDS also serves as a means for expressing preexisting hostilities toward members of disliked social groups. These members have to bear the burden of societal hostility at a time when they desperately need its support.
People with AIDS are usually shunned by the society and they eventually withdraw from normal societal life, to live the life of an outcast. In England and some European countries such as Germany and France, people with AODS, once they begin to develop noticeable frightening symptoms, sell their estate and withdraw from societal life to live in homes specially built for them. They often lose contact with the outside world.
In the developing world in general and in Africa in particular, people’s responses have been sympathetic to people with AIDS. This is because most of the people with AIDS are the young generation, who had the disease passed to them from their parents at birth. Unlike in the developed world, having AIDS is seen as unavoidable and a tragedy of society as a whole. The other reason is that much of Africa’s communities have been kept close together by strong bonds and ties of the extended families and strong cultural traditions. So strong are some of these traditions that one cannot distinguish the difference between cousins and brothers, sisters and nieces. AIDS has struck so hard in some African countries that orphanage centers have sprung up everywhere to cater for the children who have lost their parents.
In South Africa which is probably the hardest hit, and Zimbabwe, which has seen a lot of family disintergration, AIDS has become a catalyst in many communities rallying people to fight both the disease and the societal ills that intensified their struggle. The need to share, help and cater for the victims has spread amongst communities like wild-fire and there has also been an increased passion and willingness to spread the awareness. A notable example of people coming together is the case of South African twelve-year old Nkosi Johnson. Nkosi gave a speech at the AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, that shamed and inspired a lot people. When he was finally laid to rest, over a thousand people attended his funeral, including the wife of the president of South Africa.
Critical to awareness is challenging the stigmas that take away the dignity of people. Stigma prevents us from comforting those who need it most. People are living in mental anguish, alone with HIV and in fear of being discovered.
Others have retreated hopelessly to their homes to die of opportunistic diseases that can be cured. By learning more about HIV/AIDS, families can love, understand and accept, making all the difference to a person with AIDS. On the other hand, victims of AIDS should not succumb to the pressures of stigmatization. They should rise above everything else, as they are the true and living icons of the scourge. No matter how someone gets HIV, support and acceptance is important to a person living with AIDS. As in the words of Nkosi to the delegates, “You can’t get Aids by hugging, kissing, holding hands. We are normal human beings, we can walk, we can talk,” stigma and prejudice are making us inhuman.
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