When Judith Miller wrote her book Facing the Holocaust she soon realised that the darkest chapter in Jewish history was not about six million Jewish victims: it was one, plus one, plus one…
This came to mind when thinking about this year’s World AIDS day. I have lately been inundated with numerical data and statistical material relating to current debates about HIV transmission and treatments. I follow the developments closely and am keen to see the day where every person with HIV, regardless of age, nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic bracket, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending treatment, free from stigma and discrimination
But wading through the numbers of newly diagnosed HIV carriers or the statistics on the rate of infection in Sub-Sahara Africa, and in view of the overwhelming medical evidence in favour of Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), it is easy – and convenient – to forget that behind the numbers is a person, with a name, a history and a family. A real person – someone’s son, or niece, or father – with dreams, aspirations and hopes who, through whatever means or whichever circumstance, has contracted HIV and has become part of these overwhelming statistics.
So last night I sat up and read a book called The Names Project Book of Letters, which was given to me many years ago by a friend. It is a collection of letters written as part of the ‘Quilt project’ in which people who have been affected by AIDS donated a square piece of quilt on which they wrote about an individual close to them who was lost to the AIDS epidemic: sons, daughters, fathers, lovers, friends and colleagues. Private individuals who agreed to share their personal grief in writing.
I sat up all night reading these entries, trying to fathom the magnitude of grief and loss. Where do all the words go, what do they mean? Who will remember? Who will want to know?
Linda Fermoyle writes: I miss my brother Kenneth. It has been three years, almost to the day, since he died and there remains a profound sadness to my life without him.
Another entry, by Rev. Karl Selman, reads: I met James after I was asked to go visit a young black man who had contracted HIV though drug injecting. The house was filthy. When I got to him flies were all over him because he had had an accident and no one would clean him up. There was no hot water so I carried him to the car and brought him to my home, gave him a bath and put clean clothes on him. […] The next time I saw James he wasn’t able to respond, he just stared at the ceiling. He died the next day.
Michael Murphy remembers Aaron as a “great guy and I was lucky to have him as my lover for five years. We had fun all the time. Even our fights were fun”.
I think of my own brother; of the many things he had done, had said and had planned in his lifetime. Sixteen years have gone by.
This year World AIDS day will be a private affair for me. I shall no doubt wear a T-shirt that he designed; I shall most likely listen to the songs he wrote and the music he composed; I will re-read some of the letters he sent me shortly before his death. I imagine I will receive an email or two from some of his friends. The mention of his name still triggers a peel of laughter over something he’d once said or done; a glance at a photograph of him still precipitates a deluge of tears.
As we mark World AIDS Day 2016, there is much room for hope, in Israel and around the world. In Australia, the number of people being diagnosed with AIDS is now so small, that researchers from the Federation of AIDS Organisations have declared AIDS no longer a public health issue. The incidence of HIV developing to AIDS is now so insignificant that it is no longer recorded.
But, in other parts of the world the scourge of AIDS continues, as do old prejudices and dogged stigmas. Our journey is not done; there is still much to do. AIDS charities continue their hard work to promote awareness, safe sex and regular testing; organisations across the globe are working with vulnerable people living with HIV. We must rally behind them and support those who work tirelessly in laboratories to find a cure to this pandemic.
On this World AIDS Day I urge you all to wear a red ribbon in recognition of, support for and solidarity with, those who carry the burden of memory or are engaged in the quest to bring an end to the AIDS epidemic. The red ribbon is a symbolic tribute to the many individuals, men and women, around the world who are living with HIV.
One, plus one, plus one…