Amongst the various forms of implicit and explicit biases that are commonly recognized, lies the very prevalent yet overlooked bias of healthism. Simply defined, healthism is the discrimination, stigmatization, and exclusion of individuals who are unhealthy. Unfortunately, our society has correlated health with morality or lack thereof – which can be extremely harmful to individuals struggling with any health issue but especially HIV/AIDS.
The problem with healthism stems from the political nature of health and health access. Health and healthy behaviors are not accessible to everyone in the same way. Individuals who are unable to access health resources, health care, health literacy, and health efficacy are blamed for their own marginalization and oppression. When we operate with the ideology that the sick are sick because they lack responsibility, we are asking them to manage their illness with little to no resources and endure social stigmatization and isolation for something essentially outside of their control. For a society that claims to be preoccupied with morality, this seems quite immoral.
Health, although it is a human right, is currently treated as a privilege. The stigma that only particular groups of people get HIV/AIDS is a peek into the larger issue of how identity plays into privilege. Black, Indigenous, and people of color have the least access to the adequate resources and education, prevention methods, and have statistically lower access to treatment options and a quality life after getting the disease. This is systematically achieved through the influence of racism, patriarchal norms, anti-disability attitudes and classist bias in health policy and legislature. This is not a testimony to someone’s “poor choices”. It is rather a testimony of how we criminalize particular groups of people for factors that they cannot control. The truth is that we use victims as scapegoats for our lack of creativity and dedication to social justice. It is inhumane and unsustainable.
In George Stanley Nsamba’s piece, Finding Purpose, the story of children who are born HIV positive especially caught my attention. Being a first-generation Ethiopian American, I think about the family members I have back home who are living with HIV/AIDS and the anxiety and intense guilt that they face every time they give birth. I know that the only thing that separates me from them is that they are living in the global south and I am living in the global north. There is nothing that I did to deserve or earn my health status and there is nothing that the children in these countries, as well as in similarly yoked communities in America, have done to deserve theirs.
It is an obligation for us to humanize and dignify people who are experiencing HIV/AIDs because it can save lives. Through pieces like this, we can create more awareness and solidarity with the HIV/AIDS community and destigmatize the virus. Everyone has a part in dismantling the social, political, and economic systems that harm us all and shifting the narrative around HIV/AIDS to one that is more constructive, supportive, and compassionate.
Happy World AIDS Day!
Author: Yemariam Eyob (she/her), Majoring in Community Health with a concentration in Health Education and Promotion, Minoring in Sociology, 2020.