You've probably heard some variation of the joke about how different news media outlets would handle the news of the end of the world. I read some examples during a recent sermon; here are some favorites:
- USA Today: We're Dead.
- The Wall Street Journal: Dow Jones Plummets As World Ends.
- Sports Illustrated: Game Over.
- Readers Digest: 'Bye.
- Ladies Home Journal: Lose 10 Pounds by Judgment Day!
- The New York Post: The End.
- The New York Times: Armageddon Likely Tomorrow; Third World Hit Hardest.
My congregation howled at all of them except the last one -- mainly because it wasn't on the list I read that day in church. I'm adding it here because I was reminded of it by a recent column by the Times' own Nicholas Kristof, who is arguably a poster child for that organization's unabashedly global point of view.
That column was an end-of-year piece where Kristof noted that his least-read columns had attracted only 3 percent of the audience of his best-read* ones. And what were those columns (and one video) about? "Overseas news", as he calls it. Sample topics:
- China's inexcusable treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo during his dying days.
- A 14-year-old Honduran refugee girl who had been forced into a relationship with a gang member at age 11.
- An easy (as in, inexpensive and effective) treatment for clubfoot in Liberia.
- The security threat posed by Ebola.
Conversely, with a couple of exceptions, Kristof's best-read columns were generally about President Trump.
The contrast couldn't be more obvious. The most powerful human being on the planet gets more than 30 times the attention of intelligent humans than do the most powerless, voiceless and oppressed who share our planet -- or as Jesus referred to them, "the least of these".
I say "intelligent humans" because it's hard to argue that people who willfully consume (mostly) written news by one of the most serious columnists at the flagship American arbiter of stodgy eat-your-spinach mass journalism are exactly the dilettantes of the content-consumption economy.
I'm underscoring this because I can't even imagine what it says about the rest of us. After all, a New York Times reader doesn't exactly represent middle America. I don't need to see a Times media kit to know that one of their headlines generally goes straight onto the radar of the 1 percent, the business and opinion leaders, the captains of industry, the political elite, the global elite, the oligarchs, the intellectuals, the universities, the heads of foundations, royalty, the independently wealthy, the charitable elite -- and a great deal of the upper middle class. It's a bankable, almost mathematical certainty.
So if the most educated / moneyed / powerful people on the planet can't be bothered to even read about the powerless, the forgotten, the poor, the ignored (again, "the least of these") -- how could we even hope to find a single entity focused on them? Much less a powerful entity. One that spends every day with them. And whose reach extends into every corner of the globe.
Actually, there is just such an entity. And it's thriving at a rate that any single private or public organization could envy. It rolls around this big blue marble we call home without regard for national borders, race, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, ability, ethnicity, education, citizenship or socioeconomic status.
That entity, brothers and sisters, is the human immunodeficiency virus.
It's straight out of science fiction, if you really think about it. And apparently it's a narrative we just can't get enough of -- as long as it's make-believe. We read books and watch movies all the time that are variations on a theme that could have been ripped from the HIV/AIDS headlines of the last 40 years. We can't get enough apocalypse/pandemic/zombie fiction in our lives right now. But let a New York Times columnist write about actual human devastation and, well... yawn.
So here's some current global nonfiction about the 36.7 million people that HIV/AIDS has wrapped itself around in my lifetime:
- 2.1 million children (<15 years old) are living with HIV and were mostly infected by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
- It's estimated that 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2016 -- about 5,000 new infections per day. This includes 160,000 children. Most of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa, the most affected region, where there were an estimated 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2015 -- and where about two-thirds of new HIV infections occurred in that same year.
- Only 60 percent of people with HIV know their status.
- 1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016.
Having said that, the picture in the United States is a bit different. From 2010 to 2014, the annual number of new HIV infections in the U.S. actually declined by 10 percent. And yes, gay and bisexual men still account for more than two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. -- but here are some new HIV facts that might not be on your radar:
- The majority of men who contracted HIV via homosexual contact are black or Hispanic/Latino. The next-largest group after gay/bisexual men are black heterosexual women.
- Almost a quarter of newly diagnosed HIV-positive Americans is heterosexual.
- Youth age 13-24 accounted for 22 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2015.
- People 55 and older now account for 23 percent of HIV infections in the U.S.
- At least 1 in 8, if not 1 in 7, Americans with HIV don't know they have the virus.
Unfortunately, the picture in the South is decidedly bleaker:
- The CDC estimates that the South, which is home to about a third of the U.S. population, is also home to 44 percent of all Americans living with an HIV diagnosis.
- People in the South are three times as likely as other Americans to die of HIV -- and of course, they're less likely to know their HIV status.
- African Americans represented more than half of new HIV diagnoses in the South in 2014 -- more than a third of them heterosexual.
And you don't have to have a Ph.D. to guess what the frontline professionals are naming as some contributing factors: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare. HIV may need a single living host in order to survive -- but in order to really thrive, the virus needs an environment of fear, poverty and neglect.
What makes this even sadder is that, while there's no known cure yet for HIV, the advances that have been made are so significant that living with HIV can be as non-threatening as living with any other chronic and manageable illness (diabetes is a good example) -- so much so that there are HIV-positive people whose viral load is literally undetectable. Combine that with proper medical care, and a person with undetectable HIV is essentially incapable of transmitting the virus to another person.
Not only that, but allow me to add these two terms to your vocabulary:
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): As a way of reducing their own risk of contracting the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.
- Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP): As a way of preventing HIV infection after a recent possible exposure to the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.
Sound too good to be true? It's not. It's science fact, not science fiction. It's the world we live in today. Well actually, it's the world that some of us live in today -- the critical ingredients being a First World-worthy combination of education, empowerment and access to healthcare.
So in summary, the reason HIV is still with us isn't because governments, science, medicine or nonprofits haven't provided the tools. The tools are there. They exist. They work. They're working. They're just not everywhere they need to be. Not by a long shot.
That's because HIV's most powerful adversary on the planet still hasn't been unleashed. And that adversary is the single individual. It's us. It's me. It's you.
The recipe is this:
- Know your HIV status. If you're sexually active, get tested at least once a year. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of knowledge.
- The next time you see something about HIV/AIDS, read it. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of education.
- Pray for those affected by HIV/AIDS. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of prayer.
And while you're praying for those affected by HIV/AIDS, be realistic about who you're praying for: People of color, youth, the elderly, women, the under-educated, the mis-educated, closeted LGBT people, out LGBT people, the poor... and the people of the Two-Thirds World. And be realistic about why: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare.
If you do this, I promise that before you know it, the scope of your focus on your brothers and sisters around the world will go far beyond HIV -- because HIV's hegemony is just a symptom of what's really going on. It's just a symptom of what's really broken about the world. It's just a symptom of all the human woes we allow to persist in the face of the greatest expansion and accumulation of wealth in our collective history.
And who knows? Maybe your prayers will help change the progress of HIV/AIDS as well. Let's meet here a year from now and compare notes. But if you're the only one who is changed by this prayer, that's good enough for me. That's the job of prayer. That's the role of God in your life.
Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church and Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He was called to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor All Saints MCC. Five years later he founded Gentle Spirit Christian Church. He lives in Decatur with his husband Bill, who he met in 1982 while living and working in Ohio and legally married in 2015.