The HIV/AIDS pandemic sent the world into a scary frenzy in the 1980s and 1990s with its sinister, incurable symptoms and the death sentence it was associated with.
During thiѕ реriоd, HIV/AIDS was knоwn as a disease thаt аffесtеd gау men аnd promiscuous persons, аnd because gау реорlе wеrе not ассерtеd in mainstream society аѕ thеу are tоdау, it wаѕ imaginably diffiсult to bе idеntifiеd рubliсlу аѕ bеing infесtеd with HIV.
Patients suspected or confirmed as having HIV/AIDS could be refused treatment in hospitals. Many became estranged from their families, friends and were sent away from their workplaces.
But the landscape of HIV/AIDS stigma has since changed however and is still improving.
This did not come at a small cost, many people – including celebrity-activists many of who were infected themselves- have turned a diagnosis that may have come with a degree of devastation into an opportunity to help their fans and followers understand what it meant to be HIV-infected and have used their platforms to improve public awareness about the disease.
From persons in British, German, Japanese and American politics and government, men and women in sports from different parts of the world, to artistes and movie actors, it was crucial that the public could see respected Christians and Moslems infected, gay and heterosexual, and virtually all kinds of people.
Even though this year’s World’s AIDS day has come and gone, everyone who has risked their careers to change public and even government perception of this disease should be celebrated as well.
They took some heat by going public and pushing for political will and public support for HIV/AIDS, and by being willing to engage the public and transform their platforms into tools of activism and publicity, they have built legacies that have meant that people can live with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) live in a world with less stigma.
Public perception of the disease has also changed, and there is increasing awareness of the disease, and there are now laws in place that prevent stigmatization of PLWHA in the workplace and in communities.
The power of the media has also contributed significantly, especially in its power to reach people of all classes and from all walks of life, helping to humanize sufferings and conditions, inform and educate the public.
Technology has made this effect even more pronounced and people acquire knowledge and culture increasingly from the media. Many movies, songs and TV shows have helped to mainstream the message about myths and facts about HIV.
Hollywood has worked hard at ensuring some of our favourite characters depict leading lives infected with HIV, for instance, Connor is a favourite show character in How to Get Away with Murder and he lives (successfully) with HIV. Closer home is the wildly popular MTV series on HIV/AIDS – Shuga – that starred Emmanuel Ikubese, a former Mr Nigeria, as a character that was HIV-infected.
In 2018, we are far from where we started in the 90’s and as we renew efforts to control the disease, we must recognize that reducing the stigmatization of PLWHA is an important part of this battle and the media is an effective weapon for this.
We desperately need right representation and depiction in media so that this generation and the next can grow with the right perception of the disease and less stigma. Less stigma will, in turn, lead to higher rates of early diagnosis and treatment in the country.
Portrayals of the disease in victim-blaming ways, or as a death sentence, or even as a ‘city disease’ need to be stopped in Nollywood movies and shows. We need movies that show the diverse kinds of people that can be infected with HIV/AIDS and songs and books that tell of the availability of care and the almost normal life infected people can live with care available in 2018.