By Stephen Christian Quilacio
In March 2015 – just over three years ago – playwright, author and longtime gay rights and AIDS activist Larry Kramer gave a blistering speech. Dubbed “Cure!”, he likened HIV to a “genocide inflicted upon gay people.”
To wit, and I quote part of his speech:
“Thirty-four years. HIV/AIDS has been our plague for 34 years. We should have known more about this plague by now. 34 years is a very long time to let people die.
I think more and more about evil. I believe in evil. I believe evil is an act, intentional or not, of inflicting undeserved harm on others. Genocide is such an act. I believe genocide is being inflicted upon gay people.
Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or ethnic group. Such as gay people. Such as people of color. To date, around the world, an estimated 78 million people have become infected, 39 million of whom have died. When we first became acquainted with HIV there were 41 cases.”
Then – to stress his point – he (aptly) added:
“I no longer have any doubt that… government is content, via sins of omission or commission, to allow the extermination of my homosexual population to continue unabated.”
I am bringing this up now, though this time to highlight what it’s like to be HIV-positive in the Philippines.
See… I am a Filipino living with HIV. I’ve been HIV-positive since 2013. And though hailing from Northern Mindanao, I have since moved to Metro Manila; and I am now based in Taguig City.
My life as a Filipino with HIV – from the start until now – continues to be extremely challenging. And in many instances, this is due to the inaction and misaction of service providers, including (if not particularly) the government.
Take for instance the continuous running out of supply of antiretroviral (ARV) meds in the country.
This has been an ongoing issue, first loudly raised in 2013 and then “denied” by the Department of Health (DOH) in 2014.
At that time, Dr. Rossana Ditangco, research chief at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG), one of the treatment hubs in the country, said that the limited ARV supply was “because of the delay in the delivery of (ARVs) to the Department of Health (DOH).”
This was belied by Dr. Jose Gerard Belimac, head of DOH’s National AIDS/STI Prevention and Control Program, who claimed then that there is no delay in the procurement of ARVs, just as there is no “official pronouncement from the DOH to the treatment hubs to control (the distribution of ARVs) because of a delay in the procurement (of ARVs),” he said in an exclusive interview by Outrage Magazine. Belimac stressed then that “for now, all the ARVs that we promised to provide to the patients are available.”
The denial makes one angry though, because – while still in Cagayan de Oro City at that time – we who were accessing meds were not getting our steady ARV supply. We had to “borrow” meds from other PLHIVs just so none of us would skip our dosage; though ending missing meds all together when the supplies didn’t arrive.
It was as if we were being told we were lying (by claiming there’s a shortage) by the very body that is covering up its erroneous system/s.
And then just a few weeks ago, I was informed by my doctor (this time in Metro Manila) that my meds may have to be changed because there is no supply of Nevirapine (what I have been taking). Apparently, I ain’t the first (and perhaps not the last) whose meds may be changed NOT because it’s necessary but because… the DOH’s supply system is problematic.
Looking back, I also remember not even knowing of viral load (VL) for years while in Mindanao. The hub I used to go to only offered CD4 count (not VL); and – come to think of it – this wasn’t even regularly done because the CD4 machine may not have been working or there was no reagent or… other such reasons were given to us.
To date, many PLHIVs from outside Metro Manila (and even those here) do not know their VL or CD4 count.
And this is even if the amount we paid PhilHealth was the same as everybody else; and the services we were supposed to be getting (based in the OHAT package) was supposed to include this.
I am not sure if there is reconsideration of DOH accreditation being done… but non-offering of paid-for services is, for many of us, an “accepted norm.” We actually pay for services that we don’t use.
Last July, 30 people died from AIDS-related complications in the country. And since January 1984 (when the first case was documented in the Philippines) to July 2018, a total of 2,735 deaths were already reported in the country. Ninety percent (2,462) were male.
Since we already have 57,134 reported cases (as of July 2018), the number of deaths seem… small. But – of course – this is ONLY those that were reported; I am certain that many more were unreported.
But note that even now, approximately only half of the number of Filipinos with HIV have access to life-saving meds. And – as repeatedly stressed – access isn’t even regular because of problems with the supply.
There comes a point when we have to say enough’s enough.
I write this piece not because I want to, but because I need to.
Because people continue to suffer and even die, and your efforts continue to be wanting.
Part of Kramer’s closure for his lament reads:
“Allowing people to die is evil and genocidal. Yes, I believe in evil. 78 million people have become infected, 39 million have died…”
I may sound melodramatic, so call me “drama queen” if you want.
But if the people supposed to serve us are failing to do so, even if they know they can do something if they really, really want to, then I can’t help but be sad… and angry… and speak out.
Because at this point, I see where Kramer is coming from.
And to his point, let me add: I know what he’s talking about.