“They should continue talking to different LGBT organizations and different HIV advocacy groups so they will know the real problems.”
That, in a gist, was the plea echoed during the observance of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) this 2014.
IACM is an annual international gathering that commemorates those who passed on because of AIDS. Over the years, it has transformed from being just a memorial to an event where people can also be educated about the HIV pandemic. It’s also a time for different organizations to pledge their support for the PLHIV community.
This year’s gathering, attended by PLHIV from all over the country, different LGBTQ organizations and foundations, was spearheaded by the Project Red Ribbon.
“We did a different twist with the memorial. We wanted to do something more current; we wanted it to be more dramatic. Over the years, other organizations have hosted the event, but it has been just mainly a memorial, and we wanted to change that. We wanted to inspire other PLHIV and the rest of the community that there is still hope and that we need to continue fighting,” said Pozzie Pinoy, founder of the Project Red Ribbon.
As of today, the Department of Health (DOH) remains unsteady when it comes to its programs for PLHIV. The resources that have been allotted to sustain the care and management of PLHIV are lacking, if not fluctuating.
This is even if – when the DOH released its March update on the number of HIV cases in the country – it showed a significant increase in the number of new HIV cases in the country. It seems like the increasing number is (still) not that alarming for the DOH, and so its efforts are (still) wanting.
The same sentiment was shared by the attendees of IACM 2014.
“I think what the government is not doing well is targeting the response to where the epidemic is and that is men who have sex with men. We still need a lot of change in terms of messaging the advocacy and the campaign,” said Benedict Bernabe, CARE officer of Yoga For Life, said.
Yoga For Life is a community-based organization that provides free yoga and meditation classes to PLHIV and to organizations who support PLHIV.
As for the student council of the University of the Philippines, the amount of information being released by the DOH is not enough.
“They should definitely do education first. Information, information, information. Awareness is the key in solving any problem. It’s always the first step in bigger things. Kapag ‘yung information dissemination became successful, we won’t be needing mandatory HIV testing. Kusang darating ang mga tao kapag alam nila kung anong information ang kailangan nila,” said Julian Tanaka, head of USC’s gender committee and councilor of USC.
And of course, there’s the issue of fluctuating supply of ARVs in the country, an issue denied by the DOH several times.
“Ang ARV supplies natin ay wala naman talagang problema. Nagkaroon lang tayo ng abnormal situation because nagkaroon lang ng miscalculations in ordering. Pero hindi nagkaroon ng shortage dahil walang pambili or walang budget. There’s no need to cause unnecessary panic among PLHIV,” Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG, one of the treatment hubs in the country), explained.
At the grassroots, though, this is not what’s coming across.
“The PLHIV community has been panicking for the past three months now. The DOH has not been that transparent with its programs when it comes to antiretroviral medicines. The Project Red Ribbon itself has already purchased ARVs to support the community, so if there’s no problem, why is it that we are buying from other countries to supplement the problems with the stocks?” Pozzie Pinoy stressed in dismay.
Specifically, Project Red Ribbon purchased four boxes of Lamivudine and Tenofovir, a two-in-one mix of the two drugs.
“We were able to release it from the Customs in just one week. So it’s easy to purchase from other countries as opposed to what other people are saying that it’s hard to release it from customs,” Pozzie Pinoy added.
And so the questions remain unanswered:
Are the efforts of the government, especially the DOH, enough to cover the needs of PLHIV?
Are they doing what they are supposed to be doing to control the spread of the virus?
Are they really all talk, with no tangible outputs?
And are they even listening to PLHIV to know what’s really lacking in their existing efforts?
“The DOH should be more transparent about what’s really happening and with their programs. And they should have a continuous dialogue with the PLHIV community before they embark on something drastic that will affect PLHIV significant,” Pozzie Pinoy said.
The IACM event ended with all the attendees gathering around the huge red ribbon cloth while they hold the commemorative candles and as they recite their pledges for the PLHIV community. It was a moment to be remembered, when members of different organizations gathered together to remember those who passed on. But it was also a reminder to everyone that there is still so much more that needs to be done.