The legendary American singer Ray Charles crooned in “Georgia on My Mind” that “The road leads back to you.” And he was right. In November 2020, during the presidential election, people across the nation looked on to see Georgia’s ballots come in. And Georgia people delivered. Their votes confirmed then–Democratic candidate Joe Biden his presidential win and secured him a Democrat Senate to work with.
Unlike his predecessor President Donald Trump, President Biden inherited a shaken nation. The economy was in a great recession, and unemployment had jumped from 4.4% in March 2020 to 14.7% in April 2020, the record high since the Great Depression. The nation had lost over half a million people to COVID. In the midst of a global pandemic, Black and Brown people and their allies took to the streets to protest police brutality targeting Black people and racial inequalities during the largest mass demonstration in American history.
And, as many people reading this probably know, HIV still disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. In a few words, President Biden inherited a nation faced with three epidemics: racism, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19.
In March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 stimulus package to speed up the United States’ recovery from pandemic-related health and economic consequences.
The same way President Biden wants to go big in his American renaissance plan, aka infrastructure plan, HIV donors (philanthropists and foundations), government agencies, and pharma companies have an opportunity to go big in investing in the HIV community renaissance too. When it comes to the HIV community, a renaissance means investing big in ending AIDS and COVID-19 and creating racial equity in our HIV community.
While America is engaged in a long discussion on how to fund Biden’s plan, the most effective way HIV donors and pharma companies can support the HIV community renaissance is increasing funding for initiatives geared to address issues related to racism, HIV and AIDS, and COVID-19.
In fact, AVAC executive director Mitchell Warren told the American Journal of Managed Care that to sustain the HIV and AIDS response, “We need not only more money but more diverse resources.” Warren added, “We cannot do great work in treatment and ignore human rights; we cannot do great work in prevention and ignore treatment; we cannot do great advances in research and development and ignore treatment and prevention.”
Only investing big in an HIV community renaissance will have a long-lasting positive impact.
Address HIV and AIDS by Promoting U=U
When it comes to HIV and AIDS, the United States has all the tools, science, and knowledge to end the epidemic, but this promise can only be realized if all barriers preventing people living with HIV from accessing HIV services are addressed.
The knowledge that people whose HIV is undetectable because of successful treatment can’t transmit the virus sexually, known as undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), is the most enlightening and empowering HIV information since the beginning of the 21st century. This truth is the key foundation in ending AIDS.
HIV donors and pharma companies should invest big and galvanize around the Prevention Access Campaign’s promotion of U=U to end AIDS.
In addition, HIV donors and pharma companies can support U=U by investing big in people living with HIV networks and community-based organizations working on addressing barriers preventing people living with HIV from accessing and adhering to their HIV treatment. For instance, HIV criminalization laws constitute one of the biggest barriers preventing people from accessing HIV services. HIV criminalization laws fuel stigma and discrimination and halt the end of AIDS.
HIV donors and pharma companies should invest big in the mission of ending HIV criminalization. That could look like funding organizations like the Sero Project, which hosts the HIV Is Not a Crime conference and important opportunities for people living with HIV to meet with our representatives in Congress in Washington, D.C. and at the state level to lobby for repealing HIV criminalization. At the same time, HIV donors and pharmaceutical companies should invest in the Center for HIV Law and Policy, which provides legal advocacy, education, and support to communities affected by HIV and people with HIV criminalization charges.
Fund Minority HIV Organizations
A study by the organization Funders Concerned About AIDS revealed that in 2018, only 15% of private funding went to organizations that specifically serve Black, Indigenous, and other people of color communities.
The HIV community renaissance requires that no one is left behind. As much as the HIV community suffered many losses from AIDS in the past four decades and is still struggling with HIV criminalization stigma and discrimination, we were not spared from the harsh fatalities of COVID-19. In fact, we lost so many HIV long-term survivors and activists, such as HIV advocate and activist Deloris Dockrey. At this point, the COVID-19 vaccine is the ray of hope we have that we can get back to a new normal. Yet the vaccination effort is halted by low vaccine uptake.
Many factors drive low COVID-19 vaccine uptake. When it comes to Black and Brown communities, COVID-19 vaccine uptake is halted by limited education and access to the vaccines. When it comes to white evangelical conservatives, the low COVID-19 vaccine uptake is driven by COVID-19 hesitancy. When it comes to younger, healthier Americans, this can mislead them to have limited concern about COVID-19, yet it can seem like they cannot wait to get out of lockdowns and wearing masks and party.
Pharmaceutical companies and HIV donors—meaning anyone who funds AIDS service organizations—should invest in increasing COVID-19 vaccine education and access for minority communities. When it comes to targeting white evangelicals Christians, they should fund initiatives geared to distance and disassociate COVID-19 vaccine promotion messages from politics and rather link vaccination efforts to biblical teachings of “loving and caring for their neighbors and strangers.”
When it comes to targeting youth, pharma companies and HIV donors should invest in promoting youth-friendly messages on social media platforms. These messages should focus on youth interests and aspirations rather than using “guilt tactics” to push the COVID-19 vaccine responsibility on young people. Messages that will work are like this: “Your magic date and the dorm dance party you dreamed of all year long, the sixpack you want to build working out at the gym, the basketball games you missed last year … all these experiences are waiting for you this summer. Good time, youth time, our time is only one step away: getting the COVID-19 shot.”
When Thomas Edison’s factory burned to the ground in 1914, Edison is said to have exclaimed: “Thank goodness all our mistakes were burned up. Now we can start fresh again.” Similarly, all the past shortcomings in meeting Black and Brown communities’ needs do not matter as long as we commit to starting fresh.
Numbers do not lie; Black people carry the burden of both COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, Black people made up 43% of all deaths of people living with HIV and AIDS—yet Black people are only 13% of the total population. Black people also accounted for 15% of COVID-19 deaths through early March 2021.
The factors driving these numbers are complex but boil down to limited access to health care, racial inequalities. and systemic racism that fuels racial disparities. Pharmaceutical companies and HIV donors can start anew and invest big in dismantling systematic racism. Pharmaceutical companies and HIV donors should prioritize funding Black and Brown-led organizations and commit to using racial lenses in all their future funding opportunities and meaningfully engaging Black and Brown people in the funding decision-making processes.
In addition, pharmaceutical companies and HIV donors should invest big when it comes to initiating dialogues between health care providers and Black and Brown people to address racial biases in the medical world.
In order to support President Biden’s American renaissance, pharma companies and HIV donors are the key players in its realization. They have the means to go big in giving their contribution to addressing HIV and AIDS, COVID-19, and racism—three major epidemics facing the Biden administration.
As the nation’s eyes were on Georgia, expecting Georgians to secure the Biden ticket to the presidency and a Democrat Senate to work with, our eyes are on pharma companies and HIV donors to invest more for an HIV community renaissance.