Black History Month is a time of reflection, commemoration, celebration and call to action. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Sunday, February 7, places specific focus on a virus that has unusually, unequally and unreasonably attacked the African American community since 1981.
We applaud African American leaders who have been pioneers, sometimes in the face of resistance. These include models of visionary and transformational leadership such as Phil Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, Rev. Carl Bean, founder of the Minority AIDS Project (MAP), and young, brilliant leaders like Daniel Driffin, co-founder of THRIVE SS. Many inroads and advances in HIV/AIDS may be attributed to their and others steadfast commitment and stewardship.
Yet in February 2021, “disproportionate” remains the dominant descriptor in the narrative of African Americans affected by HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans make up a disproportionate number of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses — approximately 43% — and experience lower viral suppression than other groups. These disparities have deepened over time as progress has stalled. Working closely with our African American patients at Vivent Health we have charted a different course where these national disparities are dissipating, if not being eliminated.
Further, if you are African American, gay/bisexual and affected by HIV/AIDS, you live at the intersections of systemic racism, stigma and inferior resources, due to bias, prejudice and neglect. These issues — coupled with socioeconomic challenges, macro/microaggressions, fear and homophobia — are barriers to health care and prevent African Americans from seeking testing and treatment. Why are equal access, fair treatment and health care availability still obstacles for African Americans?
For too long, legislators have procrastinated and deferred to others for leadership. African Americans should no longer have to live in silence, obscurity or secrecy because of their status — or fear of knowing it. Now is the time, when we see progress languishing, that we must take bolder positions in our communities and advocate for what is fair, just, right and humane. No group should be treated differently, labeled, neglected and denied access to care and resources because of the color of their skin, who they love or their diagnosis.
At Vivent Health, we believe change can be achieved in the following ways: 1. A renewed commitment to change the narrative of how African Americans with HIV/AIDS are perceived and treated. 2. Increased advocacy for funding, especially in prevention, care and treatment. 3. An increased presence to introduce, influence and change legislation on HIV/AIDS. Our advocacy on social justice, our get out the vote efforts and financial support of organizations fighting for racial equity form the foundation from which we will continue to fight for a more just nation.
The hope for progress is the presence of African American leaders in political positions, such as Minneapolis Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. They represent a beacon of hope, a truer north and the promise to live openly, freely and purposely.
The hope and promise of these leaders guide all of us to join in our efforts to defeat AIDS and to achieve a more just society.
This opinion was written by Mike Gifford, president and chief executive officer for Vivent Health. His career spans more than 25 years leading one of the nation’s largest HIV prevention, care and treatment providers, caring for more than 10,000 affected by HIV.