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Corporate AIDS donors shy away from gay stigma

Published:Sunday | June 3, 2012 | 12:00 AM

IT APPEARS that the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS as a disease related to homosexuality is driving corporate donors away from funding a private sector-led initiative to sustain the national programme to combat the spread of the epidemic.

The Jamaica Business Council on HIV/AIDS (JaBCHA) National Foundation, led by retired insurance executive Earl Moore, is having a hard time getting buy-in from corporate Jamaica. Since its establishment last year, the foundation has raised a drop in the bucket - $6 million - towards its annual target of $500 million.

Current contributors to the JaBCHA Foundation include Scotiabank, Jamaica National Building Society, Sandals, Guardian Life, LASCO, LIME, Flow and CVM TV.

"I believe some corporate leaders are reluctant to support the foundation's fund-raising efforts because they associate HIV/AIDS with homosexuality," reasons Mr Moore. "So, it's not a priority."

The situation is grave in light of the impending withdrawal of Global Funds, which contributed 60 per cent of the estimated annual expenditure of $1.3 billion on Jamaica's HIV/STI programme in 2010. Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson recently disclosed a US$3.2-billion price tag to implement the national HIV/STI programme for the next 18 years.

First detected in 1982, HIV is now present in all of Jamaica's parishes, while Kingston, St Andrew, and St James - the three most urbanised parishes - have the majority of cases. UNAIDS estimates 27,000 people in Jamaica are infected with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), and men and women aged 20-44 account for 65 per cent of reported AIDS cases.

attempt to raise funds

Seized with the dire social implications of the lack of access to treatment for PLWHA if funding is not in place, the JaBCHA National Foundation has set out to raise $1 billion over two years. The funding is aimed at achieving the Millennium Development Goal of universal access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) and care for PLWHA by 2015.

The false morality of employers is worrying because they fail to appreciate the negative impact on the economy if the epidemic is allowed to go unchecked.

As Earl Moore notes, "The high-risk age group, 20-44, is also our labour force's most productive years."

From a humanitarian perspective, the attitude of corporate donors will doom the fate of innocent babies whose HIV-infected mothers will transmit the disease to them at birth. The uncharitable attitude of corporate Jamaica could also result in blighting the future of perhaps a 30-year-old secretary or a 40-year-old salesman who became HIV infected after an episode of unprotected sex. Lack of corporate giving could also block access to life-saving ART from a corporate executive who was infected with HIV by her unfaithful husband.

The fact is, Jamaica needs to stop being an international mendicant and start dealing with its own social problems.

According to World Bank official Dr Shiyan Chao in an October 2010 speech, Jamaica's national HIV/STI programme depends largely on external financial support, unlike in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, as well as St Kitts and Nevis, where they are predominately financed from domestic revenue.

manning the front line

It must also be noted that The Bahamas' national programme is solely financed by the private sector. In light of the austerity Budget tabled recently by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, the onus is going to be on the private sector and civil society to man the front line in the battle against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In fact, a strategic goal of UNAIDS is to pursue "innovative financing mechanisms, as well as partnerships with micro-philanthropy ventures, engaging youth and leveraging new social media".

It is important, for example, for the entertainment industry, the media and faith-based organisations engage in fund-raising to support the national HIV/STI programme.

The unenlightened attitude by some corporate entities betrays the significant work done by JaBCHA, since its inception in 2006 under the umbrella of the Jamaica Employers' Federation, to promote HIV/AIDS best practices in the workplace. This is in tandem with the government-led national HIV/STI programme.

Indeed, the 10 key principles that address HIV in the World of Work, developed by the International Labour Organisation, are part of the draft HIV Workplace Policy template being used by government and private-sector bodies.

Since 2006, eight ministries and 217 private-sector companies have received technical assistance from workplace technical officers to develop and establish their HIV workplace policies.

Byron Buckley is associate editor of The Gleaner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and byron.buckley@gleanerjm.com.

The Jamaica Business Council on HIV and AIDS was established by 21 private-sector companies in September 2006.

The council represents the voice of the business sector in HIV-related workplace issues.

JaBCHA currently has 50 members and is growing.