Sunday, December 1, 2013

World AIDS Day/First Sunday of Advent—An Old Congruence Rolls Around Again

In 1996 International AIDS Awareness Day, better known in this country as World AIDS Day fell on a Sunday—the First Sunday of Advent, as a matter of fact.  Our congregation, the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois,  joined churches around the country ringing its bell as part of the commemoration.  As the semi-official Quasimodo of Dean Street it fell to me to pull the rope for the old bell in tower. And I composed and read a poem for the Sunday service.  

Now that congruence of December 1 and Advent has occurred again.  So the poem is once again appropriate, if a bit of a museum piece in its focus on the AIDS epidemic  in the Gay community.  This is it:

World AIDS Day/First Sunday in Advent
We light a candle and await, 
            await the coming of light and hope,
            the promise foretold, fulfilled.

We light a candle and await,
            await the pealing of the bells in joy triumphant,
            where now they toll in somber mourning.

We light a candle and await,
            await the hour of reunion,
            prodigal and patriarch alike embraced,
            alike forgiven,
            all that was sundered made whole again.

We light a candle and await,
            await the gifts a million shortened lives
            could have wrapped for us
            and our delight at their discovery.

We light a candle and await,
            await the day the Quilt is at last finished,
            can be lovingly folded and nestled in cedar,
            and taken out only on cold nights
            to wrap us in the warmth of remembrance.

We light a candle and await.

—Patrick Murfin
In less than 20 years AIDS had spread from a handful of isolated cases in America to a frightening epidemic.  The fact that it originally spread through the heavily stigmatized Gay Population by sexual acts thought to be disgusting by “decent people” added to public revulsion and horror.
Two public information officers, James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, working for the Global Program on AIDS at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland were desperate to put a human face on the suffering and de-stigmatizing its victims.  They came up with the idea of a world awareness day.  The purposefully set it at the beginning of the Christmas Season when, it was hoped, hard hearts would respond.  Program Director Dr. Jonathan Mann approved and set December 1, 1988 as the date for the first observation.
It worked.  Along with the ubiquitous Red Ribbon World AIDS Day, as it came to be popularly known, raised awareness and spread information on prevention.  The first two years focused on children infected with HIV, a decision that angered many in the decimated Gay community.  But by focusing on “innocents” like 14 year old Ryan White of Indiana, the campaign did break through the prejudices of much of the public.
In subsequent years, attention shifted to the Gay community, almost the exclusion of heterosexual transmission and victims.
Meanwhile what was once considered in much of the rest of the world as a degenerate curse on a decadent Western society was becoming epidemic in Africa.
In 1996 the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) took over the administration of World AIDS Day.  And it immediately decided to down play the once-a-year event in favor of the World AIDS Campaign in 1997 to focus on year-round communications, prevention and education.  In 2004 the World AIDS Campaign became a stand-alone organization.
Perhaps attention needs to be re-focused in this country where AIDS seems to have been swept off the public agenda.  Although various extremely effective pharmaceutical cocktails have largely eliminated AIDS as an automatic death sentence in this country and most of the developing world, infection rates continue to rise at alarming rates in the Third World, Eastern Europe, states of the old Soviet Union, now in South Asia.  The costs of western treatments are prohibitive and although new low cost treatments have been developed, they are less effective and still unattainable for many.
Sub-Saharan Africa has been and continues to be hard hit.  In some areas whole generations have been nearly wiped out leaving behind another generation of orphans, many of them infected from birth.  With continuing war and famine, large swaths of the continent are being depopulated despite exploding birth rates.
At home a generation has grown up with no memory of the devastating losses to AIDS that brought the issue to the fore-front in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.  That has caused a lax attitude about prevention among young people at the same time that abstinence only education demanded by the Religious Right has eliminated frank discussions in most public schools.  Despite living in a hyper-sexualized culture, kids are less informed and more apt to make dangerous choices than a decade ago.
And AIDS has ceased to be just the Gay Curse.  Especially in minority communities it is now spread most commonly by heterosexual contact and women are now the majority of victims.  For the first time in years, actual AIDS deaths are on the rise in this country.  The disastrous American health care system has not made the expensive AIDS treatment in use in this country available to everyone.  Perhaps the coming of the Affordable Health Care Act will make inroads in treatment. 
But education and awareness among young people will require sweeping aside Right Wing prudery and the notion that AIDS is God working out his wrath on unworthy and undeserving sinners.
Note: AIDS Advent Sunday was originally published in my 2004 Skinner House Books collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart.

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