I was shocked by a health-news headline I read on Slate this morning.
“HIV Infection Rates Are up for Gays, Drug Users, and Prostitutes”
While this is factually accurate, why do I nonetheless find this representation of HIV/AIDS damaging?
For one, it reinforces perceptions that AIDS is a gay disease (or equally troubling, a disease that infects those who “deserve” it, such as drug users and prostitutes). In the 80’s, when President Reagan could not utter the word “AIDS”–even at the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., when 41,000 Americans had died of the disease and 71,000 Americans were infected with HIV–the characterization of the public health crisis to only certain minority groups was shameful.
Twenty years later, the media is still reporting on HIV/AIDSas a disease among “gays, drug users, and prostitutes”. According to a recent United Nations report on the global AIDS epidemic, “Globally, women account for half of all HIV infections—this percentage has remained stable for the past several years. ” Shouldn’t more attention be paid to the surprising fact that women account for more than half of all new infections?
Demystifying stereotypes that AIDS is a gay male disease or a drug addict’s disease or a sex worker’s disease is critical. Articles such as this one from the influential Associated Press reinforce stereotypes rather than look at the big picture of the global AIDS crisis.
Another reason that I find this article particularly damaging is its reification of the West’s superiority over developing nations (or, as we like to mistakenly characterize them, “third world” countries). Sonia Shah has written extensively about this notion in reasoned, articulate analyses of media misrepresentation of non-Western nations.
Shah is also an expert in finding the connections between this Orientalism and corporate interests. In a recent article for Ms. magazine, for example, Shah explains how Microsoft millionaire Nathan Myhrvoid characterizes malaria in African countries “to wrap his business in a cloak of moral urgency.”
“Every 43 seconds a child dies of malaria,” he told the crowd. And current anti-malaria interventions, many of which target the rural African women and children who are malaria’s main victims, don’t work that well, he said.
Important facts. But his reasons for sharing this fact? To buoy his new tech gadget. The corporate officers wonders, How might we solve and uplift these people? Try Myhrvoid’s bug zapper:
A mini-”Star Wars” weapons system that tracks mosquitoes in the air and shoots them down mid-flight–with lasers, of course. Like a Death Ray. All you need to make one is a Blu-ray player and a laser printer, plus a few months of processing time on a supercomputer, and voila!: you’re on your way to eradicating malaria in Africa for good.
Business and colonialism. Who’s got the cure for the post-colonial hangover?