"I am one of those foreigners": living with HIV in the UK

HIV is easily treatable with pills. But there are no pills for stigma. Stigma grows on the ignorance behind the statement by UKIP's leader Nigel Farage. There is no substance behind his words.

Silvia Petretti
8 April 2015

The statement by Ukip's leader Nigel Farage that the majority of people living with HIV in the UK are foreigners, who come here to access free NHS treatment, and who should not be let in, sends shivers down my spine. I was born in Italy, I moved to the UK in the late 80’s and happened to be diagnosed with HIV in 1997.

I am one of those foreigners.

However I didn’t come to London because I had heard of the NHS. At 21 I couldn’t care less, as most young people I never thought my health could fail. I came on a short course to learn English, and immediately fell in love with this city: I fell in love with the mix of people and cultures, with the endless choice of inspiring music and art, with the opportunity to study things  that were new, and exciting for me. I went to University in London, at the School of Oriental and African Study, and had the fortune of studying and researching the richness of Yoruba Arts and culture; this would have never been possible in my country.

When I became HIV positive, I also discovered that this country had one of the best healthcare provision one could expect. My great healthcare included the medical support of doctors and nurses, as well as access to social and emotional support of other people living with HIV through the self-help support groups provided by Positively Women, now known as Positively UK. Peer support was crucial because it allowed me to deal with the difficult emotions attached to HIV, especially the profound sense of fear and shame, the low self-esteem caused by the internalisation of society’s stigma towards HIV, which is perhaps most akin to how people used to be made to feel by society about divorce or having a child ‘out of wedlock’.

Living with HIV has not been easy, and I have encountered judgment and rejection. However, through the care and support I received I was enabled to remain extremely healthy, get a Masters degree, work, pay taxes, fall in love with my partner, live a meaningful life, and contribute to wider society.

 I feel very strongly that people living with HIV should be treated with dignity and respect so that we can work, have families and contribute to our communities. This is so important to me that I decided to work for Positively UK, the organisation that had had such an impact on my life when I was diagnosed HIV positive. I have worked at Positively UK for 15 years, and I now lead the organisation as Deputy CEO. In my long experience of supporting others with HIV, I have learnt that what affects us most deeply are the negative attitudes and judgment from society. The virus is easily treatable, with just a pill or two a day. But there are no pills for stigma. Stigma around the world grows on ignorance, such as the ignorance behind Farage’s statement. There is no substance behind his words. The National AIDS Trust Report The Myth of HIV Health Tourism provides strong evidence that the vast majority of foreigners don’t come to the UK to use health services, but we come here to study, to work, sometimes we escape from countries in war or homophobic violence. We come here to get a better life, work, and hopefully be good citizens.

Mr. Farage’s statement against migrants living with HIV was first uttered at the end of last year, and was condemned by both the UK Community Advisory Board - UK's largest network of HIV treatment advocates and people living with HIV, as well as by the British HIV Association, the association of HIV clinicians. It is vital that there is a strong collective front against those demagogic lies.

What is incredibly frightening is that those lies are growing on a backdrop of media manipulation, violence, and silencing directed towards dissident voices.

At the end of last month, a group of activists, including HIV activists, conducted a peaceful demonstration/performance at Mr. Farage’s local pub, in Kent : “Beyond UKIP Diversity Cabaret”. The event aimed peacefully to draw the attention of Mr. Farage and his supporters to the beauty of diversity. “Beyond UKIP Diversity Cabaret” included breast-feeding mothers (as Mr. Farage has condemned women publicly breastfeeding as ostentatious), language classes in the various corners of the pub, an HIV awareness session, and a speech by a holocaust survivor Ruth Barnett. Mr. Farage was actually in the pub next door, and the activists and performers moved to his pub and approached him while dancing a conga, singing ‘We Are Family’ (not really in the top ten of threatening activities).

Mr. Farage left quickly, and his savvy media entourage spinned the event, by claiming that he was with his teenage children who were frightened by the pantomime. No pictures of the children have been seen anywhere, and this has not been confirmed by any independent witness. Anyway it was clear that mainstream media would be able to manipulate the events in a way that was far from factual or truthful. 

What followed was even scarier. A few days after the event, activists involved in the “Beyond UKIP Diversity Cabaret” were meeting to debrief in the offices of an HIV organisation and were attacked by a group of fascist thugs in paramilitary uniforms from the far right group, Britain First, threatening and banging on the door. Luckily the activists were rescued by the police. Watching the video that Britain First immediately posted on the internet with the title: UKIP ATTACKERS GET THEIR COMEUPPANCE! the first thing that comes to my mind is my parents’ direct tales of the advent of fascism in Italy in the 1930s:  all of a sudden you could be threatened and beaten up by ‘Black Shirts’, for defending workers’ rights or Jewish friends. 

History has taught us that the first step to make this violence possible is to construct our neighbours as ‘others’, as ‘foreigners’, as ‘those with HIV’, and forget what we have in common and what unites us as human beings.

What sickens me (but doesn’t surprise me) is that Mr. Farage aims at the most vulnerable, for example people living with HIV. Many of us still live in silence and fear because of the judgment and repercussions of our HIV status being known. For example, women living with HIV are at higher risk of gender-based violence compared to women who have not been diagnosed with the virus.

By singling out HIV from all the other illnesses and conditions, Mr. Farage reinforces the idea that among all illnesses this is the most undesirable, the most dirty, and somehow a threat from which the UK needs to be protected. His words are inhumane and blind to the reality that people living with HIV, whether they were born here, or arrived here like me because of the many turns and twists of life, are not a threat or a drain on society.

We are human, we get up, we eat, we go to work, we care hugely for one another, we have families. Nobody, with any illness, may it be diabetes, a heart condition, cancer or HIV should be treated unkindly and without respect, dignity, and simple human compassion. As my friend and fellow activist  Bisi Alimi said  “That poor people and rich people can access the same kind of healthcare together is something that British people should be proud of”.

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