At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was very little information about the disease and was initially thought to be a homosexual-only disease due to the perception of promiscuous lifestyles, usage of poppers, as well as intravenous drug use. Governments would turn their backs on queer people, avoiding public mentions of the disease for years, media coverage was little to none, societies grew hostile with conservatives condemning victims of the disease as ‘immoral’, even calling the disease “Gay Cancer” or the “Gay Plague” amongst a slew of other stigmatising names. In the medical community itself, AIDS was initially known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) and had no treatment options.
For years, victims of the disease were left to die in hospitals, often without comfort from friends, families, doctors or nurses because of the fear associated with AIDS, especially due to the incorrect beliefs that it could spread through casual contact. It was in 1982 that researchers proposed to rename GRID to what we know today as AIDS, as they recognised the inaccuracy of the term ‘gay-related’ when the disease was starting to affect more than just queer communities. The unrest of victims suffering from the disease and those around them would soon lead to the rise of activist groups, bringing public attention to the epidemic and agitating for action from the government and scientific communities. These activist groups took action when no one else would, launching information campaigns, protests, and establishing community-based systems to care for people with HIV/AIDS. The World AIDS Day 2023 marks the pivotal impact these organisations and communities had with this year’s theme, ‘Let communities lead’.
One of these organisations is the non-profit, Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), established by the musician himself around his Atlanta home kitchen table in 1992, and then in the United Kingdom in 1993. The foundation started with palliative care, aimed at helping those affected live more dignified lives. As treatment became available, the foundation moved on to expanding the reach of antiretroviral treatment on varying scales across the world. Through the years, the foundation has raised over $565 million to support HIV-related programs as well as programs that provide direct care to highly affected yet under-attended regions, alongside educational and innovative HIV prevention programs, setting an example for other non-profits to follow.
In 2016, five different initiatives across the Southern United States were offered grants of $330,000 from a partnership between the EJAF and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Then in late 2022, EJAF expanded their reach to harder-to-reach regions such as Eastern Europe, East and South Africa, as well as various parts of Asia. They began establishing partnerships and working with a range of community-based organisations and aid centers, providing sexual health commodities through innovative, accessible, and discreet means.
Their latest efforts include a strategic partnership and the launch of a national program with PrEP4All in the United States, and the foundation’s launch of the Rocket Fund. The Rocket Fund is a three-year, $125 million campaign to boost up the fight against AIDS everywhere. The recent political and social climates have led to an increasing rate of marginalisation and stigmatisation, alongside rises in poverty that has only aggravated HIV infection rates and decreased access to healthcare. This fund focuses on turning the tides by providing access to antiretroviral therapies, HIV tests, and PrEP to over 1 million people, worldwide. The Elton John AIDS Foundation continues to march forth with their values and in their fight against AIDS and discriminatory laws everywhere.
For this World AIDS Day, let us celebrate the achievements, the legacy, and the progress of communities as well as supporting them in their leadership roles. Take the time to reflect on the impact those whom lost their lives or died fighting for the cause. As long as we band together as a community and stand up for each other, the end of AIDS is possible.
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article by Bernard Yap, November 2023