The end of AIDS?
September is traditionally the month of AIDS walks within North America. For a reason completely unbeknownst to me (World AIDS Day is in December, but perhaps this time of year is far too cold for AIDS walking in the Northern hemisphere), the AIDS czars of yore decided that early Fall would mark the annual era of fundraising for HIV prevention, treatment, and care. And so for decades, concerned North American citizens would flock to their local parks on a sunny weekend day, handing pledges over to local and international AIDS organisations and showing support by marching for miles in red t-shirts and shiny red ribbons.
I have participated in such walks for seven years now, and throughout my university career in BC spent four consecutive Septembers raising money and lacing up my shoes for Vancouver’s annual event. AIDS Walks would prompt Stanley Park to be happily filled with representatives from the city’s gay, lesbian, Aboriginal, and medical population, as well as those otherwise generally concerned or involved; and while the park would not be overwhelmed with walkers, the atmosphere was certainly a-buzz with excitement, not to mention lots and lots of donated money.
There was a sense of jubilation surrounding these walks: despite the epidemic’s horrific figures, the Walk provided a feeling of hope, stemmed in most part by the large number of people coming together who cared about the issue and who were committed to making a difference. Red booths, balloons, and crimson-clad singers helped to make the day brighter and more festive, and downtown Vancouver was momentarily hit with an overwhelming sense of community.
But as I stepped into the park on a beautiful sunny Sunday this year, the atmosphere was markedly different, markedly more depressed and depleted. Far fewer people walked through the welcoming red-ribbon gate; even fewer were scattered around the main stage, listening to no acts and wandering between a handful of AIDS organisations’ booths, most of which oddly included health and wellness groups, few of which represented any AIDS organisations, and certainly none that focused their work outside of North America: the most prominent booths were that of the Compassion Club, a medical marijuana society, and a very large massage booth. I had been away from Vancouver for a year, missed one AIDS Walk. What happened? The energy was low, the feeling lethargic yet also hurried: everyone seemed to just want to get the walk over with, and be on with their lives. In short, people were just so over AIDS.
Over the last several years I’ve often wondered how much longer the movement could hold up. How many more times can we ask people to donate money to the same cause, and especially one without a definite end, one who’s end is, in fact, largely indefinite? There is no cure for AIDS, and while recently reports tell of increased treatment and decline death rates, there is certainly no end in site. All the more reason for our funding and interest in AIDS to stay strong and steady; but paradoxically, harmfully, also all the more reason why people are becoming fatigued with AIDS fundraisers and talks.
In an age of hyper-stimulation within the Western world, we need something to keep our attention; and unfortunately the same sad—and very true—sob stories about orphans in Africa just don’t seem to be cutting it. People who are only mildly interested in HIV are getting tired of hearing about it; and those who have worked in fighting the epidemic for decades are understandably fatigued, fighting against an unbelievably strong virus and a tireless epidemic.
AIDS has also become shrouded by other pressing issues. The new hot topics of climate change and the recession are apocalyptic in nature and threaten more than just a percentage of the global population, and more than just a population far away from those of us in North America. Despite decades of marketing campaigns attempting to convince us otherwise, HIV is still seen as largely an “African problem;” with the economy and the environment, conversely, we understand our lives and livelihoods as directly under threat, and even feel some responsibility for such wreckage, making it hard to look away.
Our fatigue and disinterest is understandable on a certain level; and unforgivable on another. While celebrity support moves from AIDS to climate change, and media attention shifts from health to economy, it makes sense for our interest to shift too. But the waning fads of humanitarian and environmental campaigns impacts more than just what we talk about over dinner: it impacts the lives of millions, and specifically the funding for the testing, treatment and prevention of HIV for most of those who need it most in the world. Many of our greatest government programmes and non-profits that deal with HIV are currently facing a funding shortfall, and our disinterest contributes to such shortages. Much of the luxury of living in North America is that we are lucky enough to be removed from much of the burden of so-called “Third World diseases;” but in being so removed from those most affected, we are also removed from our collective responsibility to help care for those in need and to recognize how our attention affects their treatment and support. For much of the history of the epidemic, AIDS was branded and marketed effectively, drawing our collective attention; now as the marketing wanes and flashy commercials and star-studded concerts choose climate over a virus, so do our dollars, leaving millions at the peril of our easily diverted attention.
Watching this trend has made me think about the global system of dependence on foreign aid; and of our responsibility, as a rich nation, within such a system. Will decades of work, finally producing results, be turned back due to our short attention span and our need for ever-novel stimulation?