3 min

Anger on World AIDS Day

Can we finally let go?

Michael Burtch

Anger is a powerful emotion that those of us who work in the HIV/AIDS movement have long channelled into our advocacy work. Die-ins, protests, lobbying, voting, fundraisers, letter-writing campaigns, self-made and -distributed public service announcements: we used whatever tools we had at our disposal to fight our government and healthcare providers for our right to stay alive.

With HIV/AIDS causing fatigue, pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma and other debilitating opportunistic infections, sometimes all we had was our rage to fuel us. Sustaining oneself on anger, however, creates short- and long-term health problems, including heart disease and the weakening of the immune system. Did our anger sometimes contribute to our own deaths?

With the advent of AZT and then HAART, life expectancy for those living with HIV/AIDS began to increase in Canada, and in 1996, the number of deaths from AIDS began to fall significantly. In 2011, an estimated 71,300 Canadians were living and thriving with HIV. Our previous battles and hard-won victories began to be mined to produce nostalgic entertainment and win Oscars. Average Canadian citizens understood and retroactively supported our past fury at our political and religious leaders.

Now, with advances in treatment and harm reduction, many feel that anyone testing positive for HIV is fortunate to be infected at a time when potential cures, vaccines, drug trials and scientific discoveries are being reported in the news. With time healing old wounds and modern medicine ensuring our survival, could we finally let go of the anger that has characterized our struggle and worn on us so heavily?

The answer is no, and the reason we’re asking this question is because the general public once again believes we’re not entitled to be angry. Now, like then, the perception is that the situation is under control and our best interests are being met by our leaders. The old adage — “the more things change, the more things stay the same” — rings true. Since we are no longer dying at the rates we once were, some feel the threat of HIV has been neutered. But that ignores that infection rates have been climbing steadily since the creation of protease inhibitors, affecting healthcare costs and our quality of life and giving rise to the criminalization of HIV transmission. At this point, being angry and having HIV are so synonymous that anger may as well be listed in medical text books as a side effect of being positive. 

Advocates’ grievances concerning HIV in Canada today are too numerous to mention, but there are a few that stand out. Like the cancellation of Correctional Service Canada’s safer-tattooing pilot project, which had to prevent only four HIV or hepatitis C infections a year to pay for itself. Or the Harper government’s vote against Bill C-398 in 2012, leaving Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime broken and many developing countries without access to lifesaving HIV/AIDS medication. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, academic Gerald Cap-lan wondered if our prime minister could be found guilty of murder as a result by the International Court of Justice.

Recently, pharmaceutical companies Janssen and Gilead developed a 90-percent-effective hepatitis C cure, then priced it out of range of most Canadians, with many private plans (as well as the Ontario Drug Benefit) refusing to cover it. (About one quarter of HIV-infected people in the United States are also infected with the hepatitis C virus.)

Fighting continuously is exhausting, but since the start of the epidemic, HIV-positive queer men and their allies have used their anger as fuel in their battles to effect change. Anger may indeed cost us, physically and emotionally, but it’s our anger that has gotten us where we are today. If World AIDS Day serves a purpose, it’s to remind the general public that our anger is justified. Perhaps one day, when we have finally found a cure for HIV, we can learn how to exact social justice and be caregivers without relying on such a base human emotion. Until that day, don’t try to tell us we’re not entitled to be angry, because some days it’s only our anger that keeps us moving in the right direction.