Black History Month is a time of reflection, commemoration, celebration, and call to action. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Sunday, Feb. 7 places specific focus on a virus that has unusually, unequally, and unreasonably attacked the African-American community since 1981.
We applaud African-American leaders who have been pioneers, sometimes in the face of resistance. These include models of visionary and transformational leadership such as Phil Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute; Rev. Carl Bean, founder of the Minority AIDS Project (MAP); and young, brilliant leaders like Daniel Driffin, co-founder of THRIVE SS. Many inroads and advances in HIV/AIDS may be attributed to their and others’ steadfast commitment and stewardship.
Yet in February 2021, “disproportionate” remains the dominant descriptor in the narrative of African-Americans affected by HIV/AIDS. According to the CDC, African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses — approximately 43 percent —and experience lower viral suppression than other groups. These disparities have deepened over time as progress has stalled. Working closely with our African-American patients at Vivent Health, we have charted a different course where these national disparities are dissipating, if not being eliminated.
Further, if you are African-American, gay/bisexual, and affected by HIV/AIDS, you live at the intersections of systemic racism, stigma, and inferior resources, due to bias, prejudice, and neglect. These issues — coupled with socioeconomic challenges, macro/microaggressions, fear, and homophobia — are barriers to health care and prevent African-Americans from seeking testing and treatment. Why are equal access, fair treatment and health care availability still obstacles for African-Americans?
For too long, legislators have procrastinated and deferred to others for leadership. African-Americans should no longer have to live in silence, obscurity, or secrecy because of their status — or fear of knowing it. Now is the time, when we see progress languishing, that we must take bolder positions in our communities and advocate for what is fair, just, right, and humane. No group should be treated differently, labeled, neglected, and denied access to care and resources because of the color of their skin, who they love, or their diagnosis.
At Vivent Health, we believe change can be achieved in the following ways: 1) A renewed commitment to change the narrative of how African-Americans with HIV/AIDS are perceived and treated. 2) Increased advocacy for funding, especially in prevention, care, and treatment. 3) An increased presence to introduce, influence, and change legislation on HIV/AIDS. Our advocacy on social justice, our get out the vote efforts, and financial support of organizations fighting for racial equity form the foundation from which we will continue to fight for a more just nation.
The hope for progress is the presence of African-American leaders in political positions, such as Minneapolis Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. They represent a beacon of hope, a truer north, and the promise to live openly, freely, and purposely.
The hope and promise of these leaders guide all of us to join in our efforts to defeat AIDS and to achieve a more just society.
Mike Gifford is the president and CEO for Vivent Health. His career spans more than 25 years leading one of the nation’s largest HIV prevention, care, and treatment providers, caring for more than 10,000 affected by HIV.