The West Indian American Day Carnival, known to most as the West Indian Day Parade, is expected to draw between 1.5 and two million people to Brooklyn, New York, this weekend. The parade is quite a sight: Throngs of paradegoers line up along historic Eastern Parkway, many in colorful plumes and sequined costumes, to celebrate a range of Caribbean cultures from countries including Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Granada, St. Lucia, and Barbados, as float after float glides down the street with a host of entertainers, companies, and entertainers hailing from the borough and the Caribbean.
Holding such a major annual event the New York City borough with the highest HIV rates, with mostly black attendees who are immigrants from the most impacted region on the globe outside sub-Saharan Africa, would seem to be a major opportunity for the city health department and community-based organizations to conduct major HIV testing, outreach, and education efforts. So, why is so little HIV outreach planned for this important weekend?
TheBody reached out to city health department officials, who confirmed that the city "health department does not participate in the West Indian Day Parade."
Not only does the city not have any specific events to engage Caribbean New Yorkers around HIV testing, prevention, and linkage to care, but after calls to many community-based organizations (CBOs) and health care providers, it seems as if there are almost no planned activities at all.
TheBody reached out to about 10 different CBOs and medical clinics that serve Brooklyn, and several did not respond to requests to be interviewed, while most others said they had no plans to participate in the parade or other activities connected with it. Some advocates say that one reason for this is the dwindling number of CBOs doing targeted HIV outreach among the most vulnerable populations in the city.
"Organizations that were out there servicing this community, you find that they no longer exist," said Terri Smith-Caronia, executive director of the Black LGBT Alliance, a non-profit organization in Brooklyn dedicated to putting out policies that assist the black LGBTQ community and to supporting other non-profit organizations. Smith-Caronia added that after years when several organizations provided community-based HIV prevention, testing, and outreach programs, particularly for black men who have sex with men, only one or two remain.
HIV Matters to Black Brooklynites of Caribbean Descent
The borough of Brooklyn is home to over 2.6 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While it is New York's second largest borough, it ranks number one in HIV diagnoses. The number of new diagnoses in the borough reached 647 at the end of 2015, while Manhattan was second with 575, followed by the Bronx and Queens with 498 and 440, respectively.
When it comes to black men and women, Brooklyn also ranks highest in HIV diagnoses. For black males, the number of new diagnoses was 268 compared with 156 in the Bronx, 135 in Manhattan, and 79 in Queens. For black females, there were 109 diagnoses in Brooklyn, 77 in the Bronx, 34 in Queens, and 33 in Manhattan. (Data on male and female demographics include transgender men and women, respectively.)
By contrast, the Caribbean is the second highest impacted area in the world for HIV, with an estimated 310,000 HIV-positive people, according to UNAIDS.
Only sub-Saharan Africa has a higher percentage of people living with the disease. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 64% of Caribbean immigrants to the U.S. live in Miami and New York City.
Despite these staggering statistics, efforts to use the parade to engage New Yorkers of Caribbean descent are severely lacking. Only one organization, The Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC), returned TheBody's call or said it did HIV testing and outreach during the parade and festival.
"We do a bunch of events with the Caribbean community," said Andrew Henry, who does social media outreach and education with HCC. He said that they will be tabling outside their Flatbush office and offering HIV testing in the days leading up to the parade; however, even they have nothing planned during the parade itself, when the potential to reach the most people is greatest.
It is unclear why so little HIV outreach efforts happen during the parade. Rhea Smith, an official with the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (the body that organizes the parade and other sponsored activities) told TheBody that Gilead Sciences has been a co-sponsor of the parade for two years, and that she would welcome HIV prevention and education efforts to be present but has not been engaged by city officials or community organizations.
Gilead provided a statement to TheBody via email, stating, "We are proud of our efforts to raise awareness of HIV prevention, particularly among populations disproportionately affected by the disease." But it is unclear what presence it will have at the parade itself, and whether it will include information and resources on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), testing, or treatment.
George Kevin Jordan is a writer based out of New York. He is currently executive editor at Bleulife Media, as well as a contributing writer at Black Art in America. In between searches for beach locations for vacations, he can be spotted watching as much theater as possible. Find him at georgekevinjordan.com or hit him up on Twitter @GKJWrites.