WTHR’s Bob Segall did an important investigative story this week entitled “Inside Indiana’s HIV Epidemic.” If you haven’t read it, please do. It is a detailed account of the HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana that has anyone paying attention on high alert.
The response to the outbreak has also been alarming in many ways, largely because of failed government bureaucracies. But there is a mindset part of this story that I think Segall could have reported and didn’t. Early in his story, he makes mention of a group of people in Scott County referred to as the “roamers.” These are the people roaming around Austin, Indiana in a drug addicted fog, wandering from one fix of Opana to the next. Even before the HIV outbreak, the community was justifiably scared of them. And now that fear has a whole new justification.
100 miles north in the center of Indiana state government though, the “roamers” are the face of the latest health crisis. Pretending that has not had a slowing effect on government’s response to the crisis is a mistake that has not been reported yet, but it is becoming a predictable error in situations like these. There was a public health crisis before HIV struck this community beginning in December of last year. But drug addiction is not technically a contagious, infectious disease, and it seems there are many among us who believe that matters. We really need to talk about why it doesn’t.
The AIDS epidemic that began in the 80’s was scary to everyone because of our understandable ignorance of the new disease. Because the face of AIDS initially was that of the gay community, it was easier to ignore by units of government and politicians of every kind. It was common thirty years ago to view a gay AIDS victim as someone who brought the disease on himself. The movie “Philadelphia” portrayed that exact sentiment. In the movie, Tom Hanks was cast to play Andrew Beckett, a rising star in the Philadelphia legal community. Why was Hanks cast to play the gay AIDS victim? Because he was the most popular AND unthreatening actor in Hollywood. But the story was really about the TV commercial hustling and homophobic lawyer played by Denzel Washington. Hanks’ character hired Washington’s to represent him in his wrongful termination suit. Washington portrayed a typical 90’s man going through the process of learning that the “phobic” part of “homophobic” truly was irrational. Getting through this problem, the way Denzel’s character did, proved to be helpful for the American culture as it began to really address the real life AIDS crisis.
The point here is that America was slow to react rationally to the original AIDS epidemic because too many of us were comfortable blaming the “choices” made by the people who were the faces of the disease. Somehow that made the whole thing someone else’s fault, and responsibility. And that cop-out cost America thousands of lives. Lives of people of all walks. It was a mindset that started to turn when we learned the disease didn’t discriminate the way humans do.
Another example of this kind of reaction was on display last year when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa reached the American mainland. It was then that the country shuttered and grimaced about another infectious and deadly disease having a real impact to us. Ebola was discovered in 1976, a few years before HIV. Prior to its arrival in Texas, the disease and the crisis created by it was someone else’s problem also. As of May 9, 2015, 26,683 people have been diagnosed with it resulting in 11,022 deaths. That is just from the outbreak that began at the end of 2013! Again, that’s a wrecking ball that knows no boundary and we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing we are safe from it, whether we care about West Africans or not.
Ebola is a human problem. The only real safety from it humans can create is by attacking the disease as if it belongs to all of us. Because it does. It is no one’s fault that the disease exists and being angry at the fruit bats that serve as its reservoir is as productive as hating the Earth for earthquakes. Blaming Africans by ignoring it and by not helping establish real solutions for the planet is not only negligent human behavior toward them, it is dangerous for us here at home. Our selfishness will have consequences.
So what are we going to do about Scott County? And when I say “we,” who do I mean? When I say it, I mean the entire community within Scott County and that which surrounds it. Segall’s story reports a comprehensive approach taking place there right now. I admit I am skeptical that Indiana is as committed even today as I think it should have been two months ago. I wish Segall would let me ride with him on his next trip down there so I can see for myself.
Most of all, I wish we could break this pattern of placing blame as some sort of response in our public health crises. It really has no productive place in the process. I thought we learned plenty as a people from the early AIDS crisis. Maybe we haven’t yet.
Today, more than 1.2 million people live in the country with HIV infection, and 1 in 7 (14%) are unaware of their infection. More than 650,000 Americans have died of AIDS.
Indiana has an opportunity to face this with compassionate resolve and set an example by which others throughout the country and world should live. No matter how we feel about the gay community, West Africans, or drug addicts, the consequences of waiting to care are dangerous to us all. Our approach should be that every victim of the outbreak in southern Indiana matters as if he or she is one of our own. And why? Because all of them are.