by Sean Strub
"The Social Impact of AIDS in the United States," a 1993 study
published by the National Research Council, concluded that " many
geographical areas and strata of the population are virtually untouched
by the epidemic and probably never will be [touched]; certain confined
areas and populations have been devastated and are likely to continue to
be…. HIV/AIDS will ‘disappear’, not because, like smallpox, it has been
eliminated, but because those who continue to be affected by it
are…beyond the sight and attention of the majority population."
Released five years ago, this study has proved to be remarkably prescient. AIDS is
disappearing from the national landscape-not because it has gone away,
but because it has found an apparently permanent home in
poverty-stricken communities and is unlikely to be moving anywhere else
anytime soon. As a result, AIDS has taken its place among the many
social and political ills that our leaders dismiss as too complex and
intractable to be solved.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, AIDS was finally recognized as a
crisis, and attracted public sympathy and media attention largely
because it was devastating a generation of gay white men who were
economically and socially empowered. We had connections and we made
those connections feel our pain until they did something about it.
But today, the communities where the disease is surging have few
connections, little power and almost no voice. AIDS is only one of the
problems barraging them. Show me a neighborhood with abandoned housing,
and I’ll show you a neighborhood with AIDS. Show me a neighborhood with
drug dealers on the street corners, and I’ll show you a neighborhood
with AIDS. Show me a neighborhood with underweight newborns, and I’ll
show you a neighborhood with AIDS.
With 70-plus percent of new infections among people of color – more
African Americans aged 25 to 44 are dying from AIDS than from homicide,
drugs, alcohol, cancer and heart disease combined – the people most
profoundly affected by AIDS today are the most disenfranchised, unheard
and unheralded Americans. And the sense of crisis is long gone.
As liberal vanished from our official vernacular, it was
replaced with pious calls for "personal responsibility" and "political
realism." The result? A million more children condemned to poverty by
welfare "reform." Another million young African-American and Latino men
and women locked up because we won’t invest in drug treatment, job
training and rehabilitation counseling. A useless "war on drugs" that
increasingly militarizes our streets and institutions while it does
little to reduce crime.
Policy makers cost-analyze and subject entire populations to
spreadsheet survivalism. AIDS, breast cancer, teen pregnancies – these
are just more liabilities, cost-centers, to be shut down to social
concern like so many unprofitable divisions of a corporation.
Once, at least some political movers saw value in speaking the truth –
even when unpopular – simply because it was the truth. Yet social
change, public health and moral integrity are no longer valued as ends
in themselves – they have become tools to be manipulated when useful in
the pursuit of higher office or economic gain.
President Clinton has called for a "national dialogue on race" and
appointed a commission to ruminate on the problem. But what he and most
politicians refuse to do is to take the bold steps that could save the
lives of thousands of people of color. When it comes to AIDS – that
"disappearing" disease –no example exceeds the feds’ genocidal failure,
despite overwhelming public support and scientific evidence, to provide
clean syringes for injection drug users.
We must force those in power to do what public health professionals
have been begging for: lift the ban on needle-exchange funding. And
beyond that, invest massive sums for drug treatment, housing and medical
care that are so urgently needed in communities hardest hit by AIDS
Let us all commit ourselves to making this new year the one in which
we push for lifesaving policies – not just cheap talk. And work to usher
in an era of new politics, with a new culture of caring to replace the
cruel indifference to which we’ve become accustomed. After all, in the
long run – which is all that really counts – what kind of world do we
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