Following the news of the nurse recently quarantined in New Jersey, I can’t help but feel my heart tug for all of the people being diagnosed – or even given a presumptive diagnosis – with Ebola. The fear of people around them, I’m sure, is palpable. I know because I’ve been there…or nearly there. In the early 1990s – long before we had viable treatment options – I was told I had HIV and while the virus took nearly twenty years to become active in my body, the stigma surrounding the disease was a daily battle. I had friends who never called again; potential suitors who physically pulled back when I disclosed and people close to me – still on the learning curve as I was – who said hurtful things in the spirit of “keeping everyone safe.”
Even in recent years in New York City, I’ve had people find out simply that I worked in public health on HIV as an educator and they’ve responded with comments like, “But, you don’t have to work with those people, do you, I mean, it’s just academic, right?” Such comments remind me that ignorance, stigma and discrimination continue to drive epidemics. On the other end of each statistic is a person: someone’s sibling, lover, friend, colleague, neighbor, child or parent. It is fair to be afraid of incurable viruses, but for the sake of humanity, but it serves no one be afraid of the individuals who may – or may not – be living with that disease. No quantity of medicine can cure the pain caused by meanness.
–Martina Clark spent 20 years working for the United Nations on HIV education and is currently an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Manhattan. She recently wrote for 2paragraphs on Peter Piot, the doctor who discovered Ebola.