“AIDS is no longer just a disease; it is a human rights issue.”
Those were the words of Nelson Mandela, delivered before a mass rally in Cape Town on the eve of World AIDS Day, 2003. They are as true today on World AIDS Day 2016, as they were 13 years ago in South Africa.
What started as a medical mystery that disproportionately struck and killed young, gay men in North America in the early 1980s, spread rapidly over subsequent decades to every corner of the globe. As medical scientists soon discovered, none of us were excused from its deadly reach. No racial, economic or social group was left untouched. Young or old, wealthy or poor, developed world or developing world, we were all drawn into its wake.
As we stood witness to the relentless march of this infectious disease and even as scientific discovery and medical treatments have dramatically slowed down the death toll caused by HIV-AIDS, we have come to understand, as Nelson Mandela so accurately observed, it is no longer “just a disease.” It is a human rights issue that demands even greater action from all levels of government, here and abroad. The urgency has not abated.
When Mandela delivered his clarion call, the world had just started to awaken to the life-preserving treatments of anti-retroviral drugs; mostly available to victims in the developed world. Anti-HIV treatments were still very expensive and inaccessible, which effectively put them out of reach of those at the epicenter of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, and large parts of southeast Asia. Discrimination against gay men and other sexual minorities in large parts of the world was rampant, a fact that, regrettably, has only changed marginally since then in too many socially-conservative nations.
But the tide has turned. Today, 15 million people infected with HIV-AIDS have access to disease-fighting medicine. These treatments have prevented more than 4.2 million from dying, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations’ agency responsible for eliminating the epidemic by 2030. It estimates that improved access to treatment has reduced new infections by 58 per cent.
Still, we are reminded by Mandela, AIDS is not just a disease; it’s a matter of human rights for all. Why is that? It is because the disease still disproportionately affects young people, gay men, transgendered people, injection-drug abusers, sex workers and other marginalized groups. This is every bit as true in Toronto as it is in Cape Town, Moscow, Singapore or New York City.
Medicines have worked to reduce infection rates. Let’s reduce infection rates even further by promoting human rights and dignity on behalf of those living with HIV-AIDS.
How do we achieve this? We can achieve it by multiple methods: by working together to reach people who still lack access to comprehensive treatment, prevention, care and support services; by strengthening our commitment to HIV research and evidence-based interventions; by uniting to overcome injustices caused by violence and the exclusion of people on the basis of gender, class, race, nationality, faith, geography and sexual orientation, and by repealing laws that infringe on people’s human rights and deny communities the ability to participate in the world as equals.
Throughout his lifelong and fearless struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela illustrated there was no obstacle – no matter how entrenched or powerful – that could resist the unity of people in common cause against evil. Modern medicine has demonstrated we can make tremendous inroads against AIDS. Let us commit ourselves to using human rights to finish off the job for good.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas