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Confronting AIDS With Activism: Getting to Zero in the Philippines

November 15, 2012

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Sitting on hard data that indicated otherwise, the Philippines' Secretary of Health Enrique Ona chose not to address the Philippines' growing HIV epidemic for a grueling amount of time. Living in a country where HIV/AIDS is not part of the national conversation convinced Niccolo Cosme, a gay, 31-year-old Filipino artist and activist based in Manila, to bring HIV to the government rather than wait for the slow-moving machine to react.

Niccolo Cosme

Niccolo Cosme

Dressed as a physical representation of HIV -- complete with a red body suit and pseudo-reptilian spiky skin -- Cosme confronted Ona in the middle of a United Nations event held in the Philippines' most public arena, the Mall of Asia. For Cosme, it was a visceral, visual message: The Filipino government needs to come face-to-face with HIV, just as the rest of the population has had to do.

"As an activist, [actions like this] are things, I think, that would amplify the urgency to do something about this problem," Cosme says. "I was being escorted out. But I was lucky, because I was the featured artist in that exhibition [that day]. So I was able to challenge their people. I had to tell them, 'You can't kick me out. I'm the artist. I'm here.'"

Cosme is just one of a thriving number of driven Filipino activists hoping to spur the government to act on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the Philippines. According to UNAIDS, the Philippines is one of the nine countries in the world where the HIV rate is rising, making the World AIDS Day theme of "getting to zero," in terms of new infections, a daunting challenge.

Slouching Towards Zero

Looking at the Philippines' Department of Health official HIV data for August and September 2012 shows the harrowing truth: There are 40 percent more new cases than the same period last year. Ninety-five percent of new infections are among males, and 86 percent of those men are gay. Whereas historically in the Philippines the epidemic had been a heterosexual and female disease, the past five years have seen a surge of infections in the Philippines' LGBT community. A perfect storm of social stigma, lack of prevention efforts and government malaise has contributed to the current HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Philippines.

"The August and September numbers were no surprise," says Laurindo Garcia, who was the official Asian & Pacific Islander representative at the International AIDS Conference this past summer in Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately, with the way that the trends are and the way that the epidemic is forming, we're not going to see any good news for the next couple of years."

Melanie Dulfo, MSW

Melanie Dulfo, MSW

Melanie Dulfo, a native Filipino and organizer for domestic workers, accused the Philippines' government of having major structural problems that prevent an aggressive HIV prevention response from flourishing. The Philippines, according to Dulfo, is a quasi-feudal system where people live on vast tracts of land owned by one family. These tracts of land help support an elite, wealthy and corrupt few who maintain a status quo in order to retain financial and political power. She explains, "The pervasive corruption in government really sets up this system where people are the last of the priorities, and the way that our system is set up, it really fails the people."

With government funds being used to keep the wealthy in power, little is left for HIV/AIDS prevention. However, many of the activists claim that a glacial government response is only part of the problem. They say that much of the blame rests with the largest, most influential -- and most stubborn -- cog in the government's slow-moving machine: the Catholic Church. A major player in the Philippines' particular landscape, the Catholic Church maintains influence on basic governmental policy decisions. Pushback against HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment funding is almost always inevitable -- not due to ignorance of the disease, but due to a larger question over the use of condoms for birth control.

"Dare I say the Philippines is one of the last bastions of power of the Vatican. The bishops have such a strong influence on policy; they know that they can mobilize ...on other non-HIV related matters, the archbishop has threatened to excommunicate the president," Garcia says.

Archbishops continue to hold a zero-tolerance approach to safer sex, HIV prevention messages and family planning, which results in little government funding going into prevention -- and leaves a very active Filipino grassroots activist community to pick up the slack. Says Dulfo, "It's kind of amazing that a government is not able to care for its own people, and that the people themselves have taken the onus upon themselves to try and provide the care in the gaps."

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
World AIDS Day 2012: Features and News


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