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In 2011, Greek headlines were filled with HIV-fear mongering related to HIV-positive people accused of working in the sex industry. As often happens in such cases of moral panic and the mythology of AIDS monsters (those “bent” on spreading their infection), the story is actually far more complicated than the Greek (and world) media reported. Zoe Mavroudi has a fascinating analysis of the situation, a year later. You can read the whole piece here. But here is one key issue I took way worth looking at more in-depth:

The public defense of Greek authorities and politicians centered on the idea of a need to contain an epidemic possibly engendered in the center of Athens.

 

But here again, the irony is palpable. The centre of the Greek capital, where the arrests happened is in many ways a kind of modern Spinalonga. In spite of millions thrown into its development ahead of the 2004 Olympics, central Athens has come to symbolize a berth of isolation for homeless citizens, immigrants and drug users who are abandoned there not by any boat arriving from a nearby coast but by a broken system that has consistently failed its citizens. Austerity measures that were hailed as the surefire way to reforms have coincided with a rapid decline in the social services that are necessary to prevent this influx of vulnerable people in Athens’ downtown neighborhoods.

The U.S. epidemic is not much different. We know that poverty is a key issue in the crisis. Many in the so-called “black belt” of the epidemic — 10 Southern states that are being crushed under the weight  of the epidemic — are states where poverty reigns and the vast majority of the epidemic is pocketed in rural areas, miles from adequate medical care. Fear of HIV drives those who are infected into hiding, which in turn makes access to medical care and medicine difficult, not to mention simple support for those living with the virus.

In addition, states across the country have laws on the books where commercial sex work — consensual sexual activity between adults for an exchange of money or valuables — goes from being a misdemeanor offense of the mostly women (including trans women) who are working in the industry to felony offenses for those who are infected with HIV. In large cities, like New York and Washington DC, being in certain areas and in possession of condoms is often de facto evidence of prostitution, In other cities, such as New Orleans, being transgender in often an invitation to harassment by police and allegations of sex work — whether true or not.

Can we address an epidemic of a virus that is spread by sex and needles when we are creating criminals out of the very people who are infected, by the mere fact that they are infected? Can we address an epidemic when people who take responsibility for their own health by having condoms face criminalization for possessing those items which serve to protect their health?