Today's commemoration of World Aids Day will see a flurry of activity.
The Office of the Prime Minister, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, the North West Regional Health Authority and various non-governmental organisations will host events in Port of Spain. There will be a march, a health fair offering HIV testing, and even the formation of a human red ribbon.
But after the last booth on the Brian Lara Promenade packs up, then what?
Important as they are, these public awareness events should not be the end of the matter. As a nation we have come too far to not go further. If we make concerted and meaningful efforts to address HIV/Aids now, we may well fulfil the goal of ending Aids by 2030.
To do that, we must do more than just hold fairs. We need to transform our culture.
Tremendous strides have already been made. We have seen major reductions in mother-to-child infections, improved treatment and fewer deaths. Locally, the number of new cases reported annually has declined by more than ten per cent since 2010, according to a 2017 Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) report published this week.
However, Trinidad and Tobago is among the countries that still fail to offer the full range of interventions stipulated by the World Health Organisation. In particular, many are of the view that more work needs to be done when it comes to preventative interventions and sexual health education.
Our health and criminal justice systems also impose practical barriers to confidentiality — a key hindrance in treatment and diagnosis.
The deeper problem is cultural. People with HIV/Aids still, in this day and age, face stigma simply because they have the disease. This stigma is intersectional: it coalesces with other social prejudices.
The belief that HIV/Aids is a “gay disease” has deeply undermined the State’s ability to fight it. Prejudice against people who are homosexual has clearly played a devastating role.
According to PAHO, only 53 per cent of men who have sex with men locally get tested. But gay men are not the only ones who should know their status. We all should.
To truly tackle this disease the State needs to have a multi-faceted approach.
There must be a comprehensive package of biomedical interventions, the promotion of healthy behaviour, and the establishment of environments that facilitate access to prevention measures.
The State must focus on scientific evidence as well as respect for human rights and non-discrimination. To end this disease, our leaders must end prejudice.