Even though another presidential election is over, now is not the time to let what little debate on AIDS issues that took place during the campaigns be pushed to the back burner. With HIV devastating families all over America, there is no time to sit back and just relax.
Whether you favored Bush-Cheney or Kerry-Edwards, you had to be aware that there simply was not enough attention given to the disproportionate impact AIDS is having on African-American women, the high percentage of injection-drug users infected with HIV in the United States, or the relationship between the mass incarceration of Americans for nonviolent crimes and HIV disease. As the number of American AIDS casualties continues to grow, what is increasingly clear is that in the war on AIDS there is no such thing as benign neglect. If we are not demanding that these issues be addressed, how can we expect our leaders in government'whether they are from a 'blue state' or a 'red state''to solve them?
When asked by Gwen Ifill, the African-American female moderator of the lone vice presidential debate, about the disproportionate impact HIV is having on African-American women, Dick Cheney admitted that he was not aware that AIDS was that severe among black women in America. John Edwards's answer was hardly any better.
Furthermore, Ifill specifically requested that the candidates focus on AIDS in the United States, but both men spent most of their time talking about AIDS overseas. Edwards took us to Russia and Africa before commenting on the 5 million Americans who had lost their health care coverage over the prior four years and the 45 million Americans without health care coverage.
Cheney's lack of awareness about the magnitude of the epidemic among African-Americans and Edwards's avoidance of the topic speaks volumes about how low HIV and the people most at risk for the disease are on our government's priority list. Despite the low level of discourse during the campaigns, it is not as if there were not administrative decisions to contest'from flat funding for treatment and care when more people are living with HIV than ever before to advocating abstinence-only programs to the detriment of comprehensive prevention efforts and opposing needle-exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce HIV infections among drug users without increasing drug use. Not only do such policies fly in the face of the experiences of those of us who live with this disease every day, but they also fly in the face of sound public-health science.
So where do we go from here? The election is over, and it is time to get down to the business of addressing the issues that affect our lives every day. The war on terror and the war in Iraq dominated the election debate. With the upcoming election in Iraq, a growing number of U.S. deaths, and expanded tensions in the Middle East, we should expect terror and war to continue to grab headlines and media attention in the coming months and maybe years. Yet it is not unreasonable to expect our government to enhance security without neglecting our health and well-being.
AIDS activists missed the boat during the election. We cannot afford to be missing in action when new government policies are being set that will determine if some of us will live or die. Should the government do more? Absolutely. But it will not unless and until we make it do so. Every AIDS activist in America and all our allies need to write a letter to the president and congratulate him on his victory and demand a reinvigorated AIDS prevention effort, reauthorization of the Ryan White Act, a lifting of the funding prohibitions on needle-exchange programs, and a doubling of the appropriations for the Minority AIDS Initiative. I hope you fulfilled your patriotic duty by voting on November 2, but now that the votes are in, make them count!
Wilson is the founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.