I’ve been HIV-positive since 1995. That very same year, I lost my cousin Carl to AIDS and tended to him in New York City, along with his mother and sister, as he lay dying in his bed in his apartment during those final few months. I’ve lost countless friends and colleagues around the world now to this retrovirus, as have most of the people I’ve come to call my friends and family over the past two decades.
I’ve also worked with various organizations, both those based here and in Africa, on U.S. AIDS and global health policy for close to 20 years. I’ve had a front-row seat to the challenges and frustrations associated with the fight against AIDS: the kind of profound disappointments that prompted a group of Yale and Harvard students to protest an Obama speech just over a week ago. Some of my other experiences with politicians have been more positive. I’ve worked with Republicans such as Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrats such as the late Senator Edward Kennedy on groundbreaking legislation that reformed AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health back in 1992. Since then, I’ve had more meetings than I care to remember with officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations and members of Congress to press the case for rational, evidence-based public policy on AIDS and global health.
What I’ve learned over these 20 years is that achieving our goals isn’t just about putting on a suit and tie and getting on the Delta Shuttle to D.C., or writing another memo or report to someone in the Department of Health and Human Services. Sometimes you have to “act up,” be willing to protest, to make trouble.
AIDS activism saved my life and it has saved the lives of millions around the world. Each major nonmedical advance in the fight against AIDS was extracted from leaders who refused to do the right thing until they were pushed.
Drug approval for life-threatening diseases, including AIDS, was taking far too long: We marched on the FDA and drug approval times were cut in half. We knew clean needles saved lives: We defied the police, handed them out to drug users in the 1980s and got arrested. Now needle exchange is acknowledged as the best way to prevent the spread of HIV transmission among intravenous drug users. World leaders said AIDS drugs were too expensive, that “Africans couldn’t tell time” and thus wouldn’t adhere to their drug regimens: We took on the politicians and the drug companies and today 5 million people in the developing world have access to AIDS drugs; only 10 years ago, a handful of people outside of rich countries could get ahold of them.
AIDS activists from Yale and Harvard took on the president last week. They know — because they did their homework — that the Obama administration has decided to scale back the U.S.’ efforts to scale up AIDS drugs in Africa. They know that the president is being told by some advisers that AIDS treatment isn’t cost-effective, a rehash of the old arguments from the 1990s. They know that rather than seeing AIDS as a public health success worthy of building upon for larger goals, the White House is pitting AIDS against other worthy health priorities. They know that close to 40 deans of schools of public health and medicine and world experts in global health have sent letters to the White House objecting to this shift in policy. Even Nobel Prize-winning organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu have appealed to the president, to no avail.
AIDS activists from Yale and Harvard did the right thing last week. As always, when activists “act up,” they’re told that they should have picked a better time and place for their protests. We were told this again and again in the 1980s and 1990s. If activists had listened to the sage advice of their contemporaries back then, I’d be dead and millions of others would be too.
Most of the criticisms over the past few days about the demonstration in Bridgeport aren’t coming from those who work in global health, but from partisans offended that these students interrupted a campaign rally on the eve of a difficult election for the Democratic Party. The two dozen student activists from Yale and Harvard had no effect on what happened on Tuesday — far larger forces drove electoral fortunes that day. What they did do is get the attention of a president who has spurned all appeals about his policies on HIV/AIDS and global health. These students now join the ranks of those whom the civil-rights hero Bayard Rustin used to call “angelic troublemakers.” They are heroes in the eyes of many people living with AIDS around the world, including me.
Gregg Gonsalves is an Eli Whitney student in Berkeley College.