If recent reports are any indicator, Bhutan has to do a lot more in removing the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.
Six years after five people went public with their HIV positive status and 24 years since Bhutan reported the first HIV positive case, there are still many who do not know enough or care to know enough about the infection. This could cause those living with HIV face prejudice and discrimination.
And it is this that we do not want. It was the same fear of being discriminated, perceived or otherwise, that got those living with the infection to go public. We have seen the support and solidarity shown to those living with the infection. But only they would be able to tell how cosmetic such supports have been. They may be asking for inclusiveness and more while we could only be willing to offer tolerance.
Be it in the taunts or supportive gestures made towards people living with HIV, there is a need to understand the cultural context. We ask questions subtly, just as subtly as we discriminate. For the HIV positive community who are conscious of their status, it cannot be ignored that often comments or even a conversation could be perceived as discriminatory. If they are harbouring such perceptions, their reactions to these comments could be seen as aggression.
While we have policies and laws in place to treat all equally, there appears to be a communication issue in the way we are handling sensitive issues such as HIV. After bombarding the society of the killer disease called HIV and instilling fear among people since the first HIV positive case was reported, we are today struggling to normalise the infection as just another chronic disease. Changing the mindset takes time and efforts to debunk myths associated to the transmission of the virus need to be strengthened. Many are aware that sharing gym equipment or shaking hands doesn’t transmit HIV, but most are unwilling to take the risk.
This calls for intensified advocacy programmes. Bhutan being classified as a low HIV prevalence country does not mean we become complacent, not when we are aware that many Bhutanese choose to get tested abroad and avoid treatment at home. If it is the fear of being stigmatised that is preventing them from seeking medical care, then we have not done better.
Those living with HIV have shared that giving the infection a face has made them see the realities of a society that claims to be compassionate but is often unkind. Seeking support from organisations is still perceived as taking advantage of their HIV status.
This needs to change.
We have the political will to support people living with HIV/AIDS. We need to re-educate ourselves about the infection and the modes of transmission. HIV has always been feared and we fear what we don’t know.