December 1st is World AIDS Day, and as I reflected back through the last decades, I thought, how far we have come. “AIDS has killed nearly 39 million people since it was first discovered, but new statistics show we are finally at the “tipping point” of the disease, with more people getting access to life-saving treatment than those who are newly contracting the disease. This progress has been called “the beginning of the end of AIDS” and it is critical that we continue the momentum so we can finally end the AIDS pandemic” (CNBC).
As I ready myself to greet the day, it struck me that this year there was little media coverage about a topic that made the headlines regularly, in fact, most of the adolescents I spend my day with know nothing about the AIDS epidemic or the fear it caused for decades, nor do they remember the overwhelming loss of family or friends to the HIV virus. Our world was a different place in the 1980’s, before a R rating pushed past decorum and civility, before TV sitcoms made you blush, before MTV’s explicit music videos and even more explicit song lyrics, and even before a loveable Modern Family entered our living rooms and ‘bromance’ entered our lexicon. Ironically, despite all the expanding sexuality on our screens we have gained a distance from the conversations about AIDS; thankfully the number of those infected has shrunk in the US but communities across Africa still struggle under their staggering statistics:
- Out of the 34 million HIV-positive people worldwide, 69% live in sub-Saharan Africa. There are roughly 23.8 million infected persons in all of Africa.
- 91% of the world’s HIV-positive children live in Africa.
- More than one million adults and children die every year from HIV/AIDS in Africa alone. In 2011, 1.7 million people worldwide died from AIDS. (DoSomething.org)
Sadly AIDS is also among a growing list of pandemics that people have witnessed lately. And if we are not bombarded by 24-hours fear-driven news coverage about these epidemics, we create scenarios about the destruction of Earth in made for TV movies. We even drive SUV’s powered by fossil fuel proven to be destroying our planet and atmosphere. For entertainment we watch fictional dystopian societies. Death is closer and yet more surreal than ever.
This week people have taken to the streets, all around the country, in protest to both the killing of two men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the lack of an indictment for those who committed the murders. Scores of Americans are uniting against police brutality, against the deep racial split, against the trap of poverty and search to find a mend in this divide. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most eloquent speech is as important today as it was on August 28th, 1963, “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity… the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land” (King). King’s words are eerily pertinent and well worth our collective attention.
I can not pretend to have answers for these enormous problems being cried out from coast to coast as we bury our youth from senseless deaths; but when I think back to the 1980’s, when homosexuality was hidden deep in every family’s closet, when speaking of safe sex practices was an underground discourse, when fear ruled the medical response to patients dying from the HIV virus, then, and only then, can I fathom hope. With the loudest of voices and the quietest of attention, through painstaking shifts in “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream“, we will overcome ignorance and fear and hatred. “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back” (King).