Joy Walcott-Francis PhD Student SFU , The Afro News Burnaby
HIV & AIDS in the Black Canadian population Recent statistics have indicated that HIV is at a crisis level in black communities in Canada. Black people are seen to be over-represented in the new HIV infections and AIDS cases. If one should put this into perspective with regard to immigration to Canada, it could be reasoned that the greater proportion of immigration applications to be affected by the inadmissible clause rests largely with the Black population. PHAC reported that tests reports from 1985 to 2007 indicate that the Black population represented 10.3% of the total reported HIV cases in the country. And whereas the virus has been seen to be on the decline in the White population (down from 75.7% to 58.4%), it has been on the increase in the Aboriginal and the Black populations. What is even more frightening is that Black Canadian women are over-represented among the persons living with the virus. PHAC noted that between the said period, Black Canadian females represented 16.3% of all the reported cases in the country. The number of confirmed perinatally HIV-exposed Black Canadian infants is also alarmingly high with about 23.1% affected by the disease. Of the total reported AIDS cases between 1979 and 2007, the Black population represented 9.4% of the cases, again with females overrepresented at 35.2%.
Taken from the PHAC HIV and AIDS in Canada Surveillance Report to December 31, 2007
Although these numbers already represent a significant proportion of the Black population, it must also be bourne in mind that they are most likely understated due to factors such as under-reporting and the lack of ethnicity data from some provinces. This disproportionate number of Black people living with HIV and AIDS is one which does not and cannot be allowed to go unnoticed. Already red flags are being sent through the media questioning the government’s immigration policy with respect to people of African descent. It is irritating to read and to listen to some of these discussions but it is even more heart-rending to read reports indicating that a high percentage of HIV cases among Black Canadian females have been contracted since their arrival in Canada. How could this be, one might be inclined to ask, in light of the vast number of awareness and prevention campaigns? Is it really ignorance? Do we really not understand the implications of unprotected sex? What more could and should be done? I guess like a number of other communities, the mere mention of HIV or AIDS in many Black communities attracts intense stigmatization and scrutiny as immediately people begin to question the person’s behaviour, as HIV is oftentimes characterized as primarily an issue of moral impropriety rather than one of community health. Issues take on a moral outlook as they become intricately linked to moral or inappropriate or untoward sexual behaviour. For many people, affliction of the disease is not perceived so much as a health issue but more-so as being connected with illicit behaviour. Thus anyone who attracts such labeling, females in particular, is prone to much scorn and contempt. It is therefore little wonder why persons are unwilling or afraid to get tested.
Studies have indicated that some of the problems lie with what is referred to as cultural disconnections: a mismatch between predominant HIV prevention discourse (language, practices, technologies, and media representations) and people’s cultural contexts and life experiences. Many cultural values and practices were reported as being in conflict with the perceived demands of HIV prevention. Cultural disconnections were also attributed to what was seen as the prevailing discourse around risk groups for HIV/AIDS, such as gay men and drug users. Lack of engagement of Black churches was also described as reinforcing a cultural and institutional divide between HIV prevention and stood as a major social and cultural bulwark in many Black women’s lives. Respondents to the study indicated that the church doctrine influenced daily lives and practices in ways that might create vulnerability to HIV, as a number of women tend to practice what their religion tells them to practice, because religion determines…prescribes how women should behave. Accordingly, some women may not practice safer sex (condom use) because it goes against their religious beliefs for God’s seed to be thrown to the ground. Furthermore, since sex between unmarried couples is a sin and so too is adultery, of what purpose is the use of condoms among members of the church populace? It is time that our churches stop skirting around the issue, everyday living in denial and instead work towards more pragmatic solutions in an attempt at combating the disease, for we know full-well that the reality of people’s lives does not always coincide with our biblical teachings.
Whereas it is obvious that there are a number of factors at play as it relates to the disease’s prevalence among Canada’s growing Black population, it is pertinent that any attempt at addressing it must be done through a number of culturally sensitive lenses. For while we are all regarded as people of African descent, cultural nuances attributable to where we are from, whether the continent of Africa, countries of the Caribbean, the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, make us and our lived experiences unique. I am now starting to sound like a broken record as I keep preaching that as a community, we need to realize that we have to create change in ourselves. No one knows the problems that we have more than we do, so why not start from there? Why are we so afraid to deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS when it is so real to us? Many of us act as though it doesn’t exist. We say to ourselves that such a dreadful thing can’t happen to us. I fear for the younger generation whose knowledge of the disease is left to sources outside our families and communities because our lips are sealed shut. It is time that we ‘wise-up’ and begin the process of real change.