My column last Monday about sex, drugs and HIV produced a number of reactions mostly from colleagues in the human resource management profession, friends, and some readers. The comments converged along three main themes.
First, questions about E’s identity. A certain M. Tupaz actually asked whether E was a real person or a mere figment of my imagination. I presumed that the reader found my account of E’s life journey—the drug use, the sex work, and the discovery of his HIV status - incredible. Tupaz commented “parang telenovela naman” (sounds like soap opera stuff). I guess there really are people out there who still cannot believe that life is oftentimes stranger than fiction. E told me that this was a common reaction that he got when he started his Web log; he had to talk to some people on the phone to assure them that he was indeed a real person.
A number of my students at the college where I teach were quite alarmed and inquired if E walked along the same corridors they do. It’s a normal reaction —most people begin with apprehension, and then move on to curiosity, to enlightenment, and eventually acceptance. Unfortunately, some get stuck in the apprehension stage and don’t do anything to process their fears by acquiring more information and seeking enlightenment. Most of our fears are really caused by not knowing any better.
But some did ask personal details about E such as what particular call center he used to work for and which school he goes to. These are not ideal reactions given the kind of information that most people already have about HIV and AIDS, foremost of which is that the virus is not transmitted through social contact.
HIV can only be transmitted through unsafe sexual contact, by sharing needles, and by a mother to a child during childbirth. These three things aren’t activities done in the workplace, are they? Thus, when HR directors worry about HIV transmission happening in their company’s workplace, I always ask them if they allow their workers to have sex in their premises. “Of course not!” they tell me with all the righteous indignation they could muster. “Then, why are you worrying about HIV transmission?” They usually are stumped for words afterwards.
So really, there is no point in identifying people living with HIV and locating their whereabouts other than for epidemiological purposes.
But again, I consider these normal— although, admittedly—knee-jerk reactions. These only illustrate the gravity of the stigma attached to HIV. I think the default action for most people in certain situations is to go into self-preservation mode. When they hear that someone living with HIV is in their midst, their immediate thought is to protect themselves even through means that are unreasonable and illogical.
I remember one incident a couple of years back. I was working on a project with some colleagues and I was aware that one of them was living with HIV. The project involved conducting an organizational diagnosis and job evaluation and the interaction was limited to having meetings once every two weeks, so literally, just being in the same conference room and breathing the same air. The meetings have been going on for two months already when one of my colleagues accosted me for not telling him that one of our teammates was living with HIV. He got so scared that he dropped out of the project and even threatened to sue us for exposing him to HIV. Of course we explained that his fears were unfounded because HIV was not airborne and could not be transmitted through social contact. Unfortunately, his mind was already made up.
The funny thing was that he admitted that he found it hard to believe that our colleague was living with HIV because he looked and acted normal, just like everyone else. Naturally. A person living with HIV looks like everyone else, he or she can be anyone—the person sitting next to you at Starbucks, the person taking your orders at a restaurant, the salesperson making a pitch for a product. A person living with HIV is not and does not look sick. He is just different.
The second theme among the comments I received were about drug use in the country and establishments that supposedly promote drug use within their premises. Two readers sent in e-mails that essentially squealed on certain establishments. One establishment, it was alleged, allows people to use drugs inside their premises provided they take cocaine —ecstasy, crystal and other drugs presumably deemed to be beneath their social status as the bar of the ruling social class. This establishment figured heavily in the news recently not only because of the allegations of being a drug den but also because of unruly and oftentimes violent behavior of its most valued patrons.
Another e-mail writer asked me to reveal the information she shared with me, juicy stuff about which celebrity or members of the social set are into snorting cocaine. But in the same breath, she asked that I keep her identity secret. In short, she wanted me to do what that 70,000 dollars blog does regularly, which is to pass off rumors and allegations as gospel truth. Thanks, but no thanks. I may be innately contemptuous of people who flaunt profligate lifestyles but I also have a natural disdain for people who don’t respect other people’s rights.
The third category of responses expressed alarm over the rising incidence of HIV infection in the country, particularly among the yuppie and college-age set. I’ve known for quite sometime about the high incidence of infection in the call center industry but I have personally not written about it because I felt that doing so verge on being alarmist. But I did share the information to a group of call center executives in a meeting called specifically to discuss HIV in the workplace. I remember being initially frustrated during the question-and-answer portion because most of the questions had to do with—you guessed it right—identities. They wanted to know which call centers had agents that tested positive, what was the profile of the people who tested positive, etc.
I’m still hoping that the call center industry, or industry in general, would finally sit up and recognize that we have a problem in our hands and we need to address it proactively. There’s a need to do education and prevention programs targeted at this particularly vulnerable sector. And then there’s the need to put in place HIV in the workplace programs such as counseling and other support programs for people living with HIV who are on board, or who are qualified to join their workforce. A person living with HIV is not sick, is still productive, and remains as valuable human capital.
And lest we forget, there’s actually a law that prohibits discrimination against those living with HIV.