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Address By Orlando Scott, Senior Assistant General Secretary, Barbados Workers’ Union, To The AIDS Society Of Barbados’ Annual General Meeting, Sunday, November 11, 2007.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. Psalm 127

Madam President, distinguished members of the Executive of the AIDS Society of Barbados, ladies and gentlemen, we are very honoured to have been chosen to address your annual general meeting this afternoon; and we have accepted your invitation with humility. We did so, putting aside our vacation because we believe so very strongly in the work of the AIDS Society of Barbados and the people who manage it that only ill health would have separated us from being here today.

We commend the founders and members of the AIDS Society of Barbados for your charitable response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic over the past two decades. We laud your efforts the more so because you have been doing it in the behalf of the dozens of Barbadians who are infected or affected by the disease, and who, in some cases, have been ostracized by society. And you started this work even when it was unglamorous to do so. What makes us very proud of the AIDS Society is that your work, in our estimation, is done according to the dictates of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as recorded in Matthew 6. He said then when you do good deeds, don’t try to show off. If you do, you won’t get a reward from your Father in Heaven. When you give to the poor, don’t blow a loud horn. The Lord says that’s what show offs do in the meeting places and on the street corners because they are always looking for praise”.

The AIDS Society, established in 1990, is the longest serving health NGO in Barbados involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS. You have the noble objectives of:

•             providing counseling and support for persons infected and affected by HIV/AIDS

•             facilitating group and single therapy for infected persons and their families

•             promoting and providing education to the public about the diseases; and

•             Promoting the rights and welfare of persons infected and affected by the virus.

It takes a special breed of people – people such as you are to dedicate your lives to advocating on the behalf of people living with the virus or AIDS. You could use your spare time, like others, to attend ball games, watch television, spend time with your family, relax at the beach or be part of social gatherings as most of us do. Rather you expend your time looking after the interest of those who are associated with the greatest health challenge facing mankind today. We commend the unselfish work of your leadership and the many foot soldiers who have laboured on in this work without the trumpet sound. Madam Chair, we know of your steadfast commitment to serve and we pray that you would continue, unselfishly, as you have been doing, challenging as it may be, to work in the behalf of those whom you have committed yourself to serve, always showing Christian compassion.

This word service means many things to different people. Some join organisations to serve. But the reality is that the self-seeking join organisations only if they can preside at the pinnacle of the pyramid or are able to benefit from the photo opportunities in the mass media, but, as the Master has said, if we wish to be great and to lead, and to truly serve, then we have to be humble enough and compassionate enough to do the unthinkable, that is, to be the servant of all the others.  What we are saying then is that people who make up organisations such as the AIDS Society of Barbados, who truly give service, are like rare and precious coins. We have said the above to fortify the souls of those of you who have dedicated yourselves to the cause and who, at times may sense that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and are tempted to throw in the towel, because of the many challenges we face on a day to day basis.

Based on our own experience, these challenges range from areas such as:

•             The need for adequate funding to effectively manage our work and help those who are most in need such as the adults and children who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS and for whom access to services like housing, care and education are a challenge;

•             Meeting the needs of orphans and or children whose parents are unable to access work and shelter;

•             The dubious agenda of some lobby groups which are associated with HIV/AIDS; and

•             Being confronted by the barriers that stand in the way of efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

But we must not surrender because the Master promises that when we give a drink of water to those in need in his name we give it unto Him. In other words when we serve the AIDS Society or any other similar organisation we must do so without grudging obligation and without asserting self; we must do so unto the Lord.

Non-governmental organisations like the AIDS Society of Barbados have a distinct and useful role to play in health promotion because as The Global Union Network has stressed, “Health is a human right and it is one of the most powerful indicators of social justice in society”. The AIDS Society, because it is not bogged down by bureaucracy and also because of its grass roots and other connections, has the flexibility to reach where the formal government-run agencies cannot touch. Such organisations also take much pressure off the Central Government and its formal institutions in terms of providing care for those who need it most. One such response by the AIDS Society is assisting children up to age 18 who are affected or infected with HIV/AIDS – with food items throughout the year, gifts at Christmas and school supplies at the beginning of the school year, through the on-going assistance of the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Anglican Men’s Associations. We think that the relevant authorities should recognise this work with the rendering of the appropriate assistance.

A key but provocative issue which we wish to place on the agenda this evening is disclosure in relation to HIV/AIDS; we do so because there are some people who are advocating the need for us to re-look this question. This is a sensitive issue which has occupied our minds for sometime. We shall seek to assess some of the arguments which have been led by those who are burdened by the emotional pain which results when the innocent suffer. And it is for this reason that we suggest that “disclosure” is an issue which needs deep thought and wide discussion. There is a school of thought, and we have heard even health care providers argue the same, that the question of confidentiality – in absolute terms - has it difficulties. They argue that there are two groups that need to be examined as it relates to disclosure. The first group comprises persons who, when they have been diagnosed with the virus, out of fear or other considerations, do not disclose that information to their partner or partners and continue to have unprotected sex with them. The other group consists of infected sex workers who are on antiretroviral drugs, who appear physically healthy, and who continue to ply their trade with unsuspecting clients. As we understand it, health care providers may counsel them, but it is still their responsibility to disclose. The argument is: if you have contracted the virus and continue to have sexual relations with your partner or partners, having not disclosed your illness to them that is akin to committing murder.

Moreover, where does that leave the health care provider who is aware that his or her client has contracted the virus; has not disclosed that information to his or her spouse, but continues to have sex with them? Such behavior must create a dilemma for the health care provider, whose first role is to save lives but who is helpless in this case. He or she knows that Mr. X or Ms. Y has been diagnosed with the virus, yet, he or she cannot disclose the information to the unsuspecting and innocent spouse. There is also a school of thought who suggests that hiding the illness adds to its mystery and deadly nature and discourages the empathy which is necessary for people with HIV/AIDS to be accepted by family and friends. While disclosure is a personal decision which the person with HIV/AIDS must make it is clear that those who have the virus and who share intimate relationships with others need to look beyond self. It is an issue which needs to be examined far more deeply by the leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

We hope that no one would interpret the arguments which we have raised to mean that we have said that confidentiality in the case of HIV/AIDS should be abandoned because disclosure and confidentiality are not the same. Far from it: because we are aware of human behaviour, especially our appetite for gossip which could destroy the lives of others. Having said that, however, we believe that the questions we have raised should be seriously studied, particularly as we have to protect lives. We wish deeper and sustained public discussion on HIV/AIDS so that the challenges with which people are involved in the HIV/AIDS pandemic may be dealt with wisely.

Madam Chair, we started our discussion with you, by quoting psalm 122, which warns us that unless the Lord builds the house, we who build it labour in vain. This evening we wish to apply that sentiment to our fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic. HIV/AIDS is unlike any of the other dreaded diseases that have afflicted mankind over the centuries. The defining difference between HIV/AIDS and the other diseases is that it is largely contracted by sexual intercourse. As far as we know, the sex act is as natural to human beings as breathing is. Any normal man would tell you that. God created sex and He blessed it because this is the way by which He determined that man and woman would enjoy intimacy, nurture families, build communities and nations and populate the world and glorify Him. So, if it is a God-given gift – and we are encountering problems with HIV/AIDS and STIs – do you not think that we should invoke the help of God by putting Him at the centre of the problem? Many of us who are involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS seem uncomfortable to bring God into the equation and to say publicly to our people, with love and compassion in our hearts, that Godly living would lead to the control of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We feel that way.

By Godly living we are suggesting that we apply the biblical code and admonish ourselves to start by sticking with our partners – by partner we mean husband  (man) and wife (woman); and adopting a wholesome lifestyle. There is no judgment here on our part.

The prescriptions are clear. We believe that while there is a role for the Social Partners, the HIV/AIDS Commission, The AIDS Society, the ILO/USDoL HIV/AIDS Programme and the AIDS Foundation in the fight against HIV/AIDs, we parents have the distinct function (and responsibility) of instilling values in our children. The inculcation of moral standards has to start in the home among the family even if this teaching is supplemented by other institutions like schools and churches. Madam chair, fathers must take on the role of the High Priest in the Home and mothers the role of the virtuous woman. And this must be done mindful of the insidious nature of the competing other institutions which have the power to supplant the good that the home, the school and the church seek to develop.  We insist that the role of parents is crucial in building strong foundations for our nation. We say that because of what we will now discuss.

Journalist Sanka Price, wrote in the September 23 edition of the Sunday Sun, a story headlined UNSAFE SEX. Doc Worried about Infections, number of pregnant 14 year-olds. This story revealed that there are serious societal cracks which we must seek to fill. In the story Dr. Vijaya Thani was quoted as having said that Barbados may be losing the battle against the spread of sexually transmitted infections. She said that though young people knew how these diseases were spread, it had not translated into any significant change in their behaviour. Because of this, she said that she was treating more cases of STIs today than she did 15 years ago.

Dr. Thani reported that she was seeing a lot of herpes, at least six cases per month; three to four new cases of Chlamydia per month; new case of warts twice to three times per month; (and) new cases daily of bacterial vaginosis. The doctor explained that this condition is not strictly sexually transmitted but is found in women who have more than one partner; umpteen cases of yeast infections which, again, are not strictly sexually transmitted, though they can be: (and) she said that she was also seeing a significant rise in the number of trichomonous vaginalis, which is sexually transmitted. The doctor was also perturbed about the number of pregnant teens – 14 year olds – that she sees and the high volume who have been raped.

The other issue to which Dr. Thani spoke and which is also attracting the HIV/AIDS Commission is sexual predation of teens by people close to them, sometimes family members; people who have control of the lives of these children. This is the damaging part because children are usually trusting and would depend on their Uncle Joes, Auntie Floes and neighbour Moes to take care of them. It turns out that same people who should be offering them protection are the ones who are preying on them.  Equally alarming were Dr. Thani’s disturbing comments about patients having lesbian and gay associations; this has increased, as well, she said.

The same newspaper in an article by Maria Bradshaw reports that young people are getting high on drugs and alcohol with the knowledge of their parents, according to a study by the National Task Force on Crime and Lifestyle Survey. It was undertaken three years ago, with 2 500 respondents between the ages of 12 and 30 years taking part. Another indictment if there was one.

Madam Chair it is for this reason that we are suggesting that the fight against HIV/AIDS compels battles on all societal fronts – the home, the school, the church, the workplace, the play ground – if we wish to deal with the negative influences against the pursuance of healthy living. HIV/AIDS is a lifestyle disease and Barbadians are products of the society in which we live. In the same way that a lime tree cannot produce mangoes if there are cracks in our society the populace will be affected. The truth is that there is a societal malaise which has permitted moral drift. We in Barbados have given comfort to many of the behaviours on which we would have frowned a generation ago. Yet we wonder why we have problems. Additionally, today anything goes it seems. Years ago in Barbados, most Barbadians had a philosophical mooring. For example, we were democratic socialists, conservative, Christians, even cuss birds. Today, we believe in the philosophy of expediency – and pragmatism has become the new credo. And others are noticing too. Two eminent Barbadians who are living overseas – novelist Austin “Tom” Clarke and Charlie Skeete, an economist, only very recently in the Nation newspaper commented about the negatives which they saw developing in the Barbadian society. Clarke noted that there was less emphasis, less respect for certain necessary values in Barbados. He gave an example, where someone had cuffed a magistrate, and a parent who went to school to beat up a teacher because of a disagreement over a student.

Our suggestion is that we in Barbados have to examine what are the factors that have led to the apparent breakdown in our community. We suggest that we have to look, for example, at the mass media and their foreign and perverted influences, for example, the scum that can be downloaded from the worldwide web, as well as the naked sex and evil on television; the putrid lyrics in dance hall and other music; the consequences of exposure to drugs and alcoholism; among other things. We have to look at the whole picture and not part of the whole. What we are doing is fighting a rearguard battle when indeed we should be investing far more intensively in prevention.

Let us pray that God will help us to walk the straight and the narrow way.

Unless the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build the house.