How would you feel if every time the media spoke about people in your community, they used words like “victims”, “contaminated” and “sufferers”? Wouldn’t you then hesitate to tell people that you were part of that community, even if you knew that this could be potentially hazardous to those you come into contact with?
This is the reality of people living with HIV (PLHIV), especially in Trinidad & Tobago (and the Caribbean generally, if we’re being honest). They see themselves stigmatized and shunned by friends, family and the wider society.
They are regarded as being either “innocent victims” or people who “looked for it” depending on the situation that led to them contracting the virus. And can we be real here? It’s a virus. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s not transmitted by casual contact, so there’s nothing to fear from touching PLHIV or even sharing public facilities with them.
There’s also a distinction to be made between those living with HIV, that is, those who have the virus in their blood, and those with AIDS, who are suffering from complications caused by the collapse of their immune system.
The media plays a large part in depicting the stories of people living with HIV to the public. Advocates at the workshop I attended asked that the media not use the words “victims” – which implies that they are powerless, “AIDS patients” – unless it’s true, “sufferers” and “suffering with HIV” because in many cases, this is simply not true. PLHIV have also been described in the media as being part of an “epidemic”, as being “vectors” and “diseased.” If these are the images which are presented to the public on a regular basis, is it any wonder that the stigma against PLHIV is so significant?
Let’s not talk about how the disease itself is depicted in the media… or rather, let’s talk about it.
With terms like “death sentence”, “scourge”, “killer”, “dreaded”, “plague” and “deadly” being used, is it any wonder that people are afraid to get tested for HIV? That they consider first what their family and friends might think if they see them going for testing instead of taking advantage of services that can help them detect the virus, or better yet, make sure that they don’t have it?
People with HIV can now survive for years without having complications, due to advances in the medical field and the new medication that has been developed. Some marry and have children without passing on the virus to their partners or their offspring. There’s medication that partners not infected with the virus can take to make sure that they stay free of the virus.
They live their lives just like the rest of us. That’s what we need to remember, that people who live with HIV and AIDS are also human beings, and should not be shunned, discriminated against or stigmatized because they have the virus. We need, as media people and as a society, to police the language that we use, to ensure that the stigma against the virus and those living with it does not grow and present a barrier to those who want to be responsible for themselves and their sexual health when living with HIV.