AIDS Wisdom and the MH17 Tragedy

Before I was an Everyday Ambassador, I was an AIDS activist.

At age 14 in my small, suburban hometown, I unexpectedly stumbled into the heartbreak of HIV, and with that exposure came baptism into the passionate realm of AIDS activism*. This passion introduced me to heroes in the fight to end AIDS all over the planet: in the US and Ghana, in Tanzania and Kenya, in South Africa and Indonesia. As a tiny, microscopic virus ravaged entire communities, these heroes rose up and fought back in countless waysscientists becoming infectious disease specialists, health workers becoming HIV educators, community leaders becoming activists for improved HIV policies, children becoming parents and parents taking in children, friends staying by the bedside of the sick.

Countless “everyday people” saw in this tragedy an opportunity for healing. And millions of lives have been saved thanks to them.

I find this worth mentioning today because many of my fellow activists were en route to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne last week when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky. In an instant, the innocent passengers became casualties of a war in which they had never enlisted.

Though there is little to say in the face of such senseless tragedy, I felt compelled to reflect on the response of AIDS activists over past decades to another “war”—on HIVthat has caused incredible suffering. In their legacies, I find some key lessons that can guide any social change or peace-building effort on our planet today:

Even without a passport, we’re all global citizens. 

The very visceral and palpable tragedy of a once-killer infectious disease made HIV/AIDS, initially, impossible to ignore (though some politicians tried hard to!). It is a disease that infects indiscriminately, affecting every nation on the planet, and provides a rare example of an issue that affects us all right now. Yes, the rapid spread of AIDS revealed one downside of a globalized world. But global AIDS warriors identified and leveraged the manifold benefits of our interconnectedness: We can share strategies for testing and treating; we can negotiate drug prices via bulk purchasing to a reasonable rate; we can overcome AIDS-related stigma by finding strength in solidarity.

There is more that unites us than separates us. 

There are important differences in culture, language, and social norms that have distinguished how to tackle HIV/AIDS in different environments. But tackling AIDS has revealed incredible similarities that give diverse groups common ground to stand on. We join this fight because we all want our friends and family members to be healthy, and we want respect and dignity no matter our diagnoses. Pushing for universal access to AIDS treatment has forced us to confront the moral obligation of making any life-saving intervention available to any human being who needs it.

We all have a role to play in ending this war.

Many people involved with seeking an “end to AIDS” are living with HIV or have loved ones living with HIV. But many heroes have no immediate personal connections; they simply see that a disease infecting only some people still ends up affecting nearly everyone. There is something incredibly precious about becoming involved with an issue even when there is no personal connection; it emphasizes the fact that we are connected not by the problem, but by our desire to solve it.

The world has benefited infinitely from the legacy of AIDS warriors: their spirit of solidarity, their emphasis on the moral obligation of universal care, and their insistence that, again, we are all affected even if not infected. You and I can apply these lessons to any issue of social importance in our lives. But HIV/AIDS taught us that an initially localized war can spread easily across nations to innocent, unsuspecting victims. Tragically, we’ve just watched the same thing happen over Ukraine; it’s happening now in Palestine and Israel, and will continue to spread if we don’t band together as the AIDS warriors have done.

So what do we do? 

Stopping war between Russia and Ukraine seems unlikely. But:

  • There is talk on the table of prohibiting commercial aviation over any conflict zone, which would be a huge financial burden to airlines but would create pressure for more (and more powerful) people to end this (and other) wars. You’re a customer; you have a voice.
  • Your government may soon issue stronger sanctions against Russia until they are more cooperative with an investigation of the crash, and as a citizen you have a voice with your elected representatives to push these sanctions.
  • Most importantly, you can read up on the ongoing conflict and educate yourselfthen encouraging your friends, family, classmates, and co-workers to do so themselves.

True, not everyone on flight MH17 was heading to the AIDS Conference. But every victim on that flight had something unique and irreplaceable to offer the world. A misguided weapon shot down not only a person who may have cured HIV, but two students who could have gone on to end cancer.  It shot down authors and educators,  parents and children. We can’t walk away from this apathetically.

I hope we will respond to these war casualties, and to all wars, the way AIDS activists have demonstrated. In the face of violence and politics that seem far beyond any one person’s control, we must each do something. 

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*A background look into how I became involved with HIV/AIDS work:


“Field Notes” is weekly global news commentary by Everyday Ambassador founder and director Kate Otto. To stay up to date on current events and the latest posts from this series, follow #fieldnotes on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.


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