This Oscars, let action=life.

*Grateful that this piece was first posted at Positive Lite, Canada’s Online HIV Magazine.

This has been adapted from letter for use by HIV advocates to raise awareness in the lead up to the Oscars first written by the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance.

The Oscars are once again upon us, drawing our eyes to the compelling films that bring our histories, fears and fantasies to the screen.

As someone who works with gay men and people living with HIV everyday, I am drawn to this year’s Oscar awards for an additional reason. How To Survive a Plague, a documentary film chronicling the successful fight to bring effective, lifesaving HIV treatment to millions, has been nominated for the Best Documentary award.

silence=deathThis must-see story of a feisty group of mostly young, and mostly gay and lesbian people in New York City is not just a fascinating piece of American history that needs recognition.

It’s also a guide to speaking out and acting up for change, as well as a cautionary tale about what we stand to lose if we remain silent.  As generations of HIV activists have asserted, silence=death. Now is no time to rest on our laurels in the fight against HIV or take for granted the victories won, in part, by those in this film.

In Canada, recent decisions have had negative implications for people living with, and affected by, HIV. Despite rhetoric from our leaders about achieving an AIDS-free generation, the federal government has refused to move forward on extending access to treatment for all with Bill C-398, cut funding to Canada’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, all while investing money in legal challenges to evidence-based harm reduction initiatives such as InSite. Further, Supreme Court decisions have made Canada a leader in criminalizing HIV non-disclosure.

In British Columbia, millions of dollars have been spent on the “seek and treat” strategy, which scales up HIV testing among populations most affected by HIV and the general population, as well as encourages all people living with HIV to access treatment soon after their diagnosis. People living in this province are able to access HIV treatment at no cost; however, this aggressive strategy has been criticized for compromising patient confidentiality and spreading misinformation, and, despite newly announced changes, its overall failure to decrease new HIV infections among men who have sex with men. Further, this strategy does little to address the factors that fuel HIV transmission, including heterosexism, colonization, and poverty.

Elsewhere in Canada, people living with HIV may access subsidized treatment through a combination of private and public coverage. However, these programs are not accessible to everyone living with HIV. It is crucial that provincial, territorial and federal governments work together now to ensure cost is not a barrier to HIV treatment, both in Canada and beyond (read more at the Canadian Treatment Access Council blog).

We must also work across sectors to address the underlying issues that fuel HIV transmission: stigma, discrimination and marginalization. We must provide HIV testing in environments where individuals have adequate information about HIV, the testing process, confidentiality, and are freely able to give consent. People who test HIV-positive must be given information and time to make informed decisions about starting treatment. For those people living with HIV who decide to access treatment, it must be made available free of cost. Funding cuts, increased criminalization, and fighting proven harm-reduction initiatives are not the way forward.

The legacy of HIV activism, in this country and elsewhere, requires us to raise our voices, and demand evidence-based policies that address the needs of all people living with and affected by HIV, including gay men, indigenous people, injection drug users, sex workers, newcomers, people in prisons, and trans* people.

Thanks to the work showcased in How To Survive a Plague, many people have indeed been able to survive this plague. While silence=death, there is always an opportunity for action=life. Collectively, whether living with HIV or not, we must now redouble our efforts to end it.

For more information, check out AIDS Action Now, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Canadian Treatment Access Council.

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