Sat | Mar 25, 2017

Bain undermined HIV fight

Published:Wednesday | May 21, 2014 | 5:00 AM

By Jaevion Nelson

There seems to be some sort of confusion about the right to speech and freedom of conscience, especially where issues of gay rights, abortion and other so-called sensitive issues are concerned.

Learned people - including lawyers, academics and medical doctors - seemingly believe they should have the freedom to (mis)use data to oppress or retard the rights of minority groups.

In the last few days, people have been protesting on behalf of Professor Brendan Bain, whose contract at University of the West Indies (UWI) as head of CHART has now been terminated. Seemingly, they think his involvement in a matter brought by Caleb Orozco regarding the alleged unconstitutionality of Section 53 of the Criminal Code in Belize, which proscribes same-sex intimacy, is justified.

It is questionable why Professor Bain would have provided an affidavit to support a coalition of church groups opposed to the removal of the law despite being the director of an entity which was established to "strengthen the capacity of national health-care personnel and systems to provide access to quality HIV & AIDS prevention, care, treatment, and support services for all Caribbean people".

Bain's own research into the epidemiology of HIV while at CHART, I am sure, has recognised the relationship between increased vulnerability to HIV and hostile social environments. His testimony demonstrates that he is aware of the 'hypothesis', as he terms it, that the retention of laws which criminalise consensual same-sex intimacy are barriers to effective HIV prevention among key populations such as MSM.

The tone and tenor of his contribution by way of affidavit was, therefore, quite surprising and arguably betrayed all the good intentions of CHART in the regional HIV response. It is evident that either he did not consider how inimical his role in the case might have been to the integrity of CHART or he did not care despite receiving a letter dated February 8, 2012 from the co-chairs of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) explicitly ventilating such concerns.

The alarmists among us would have us believe this was an attempt to muzzle Professor Bain and frighten anyone who might have divergent views on the issue, but this is furthest from the truth. Professor Bain is free to diverge from scientific consensus if he does so based on empirical evidence. Unfortunately, what has alarmed those of us who work in the field of HIV is the glibness with which he used stale data, incomplete findings and language which demonstrated a prejudice against the identities and activities of men who have sex with men (MSM).

It is important to note that at no time in the call from civil society was a request made for Professor Bain to be relieved from his position as a university professor nor was his right to his personal views contested. What has consistently been in question is his ability to provide leadership of a programme whose mandate is to train health-care and other professionals to appropriately respond to the HIV epidemic in light of prevailing evidence of what works - effective science.

Effective HIV responses

Professor Bain, like others working in the field, has seen the science around HIV develop, and there is consensus that an enabling environment, free from punitive and discriminatory laws, is a significant enabler to effective HIV responses.

In fact, Professor Bain, in varying roles in the regional response, has either explicitly or implicitly consented to the need for removal of punitive laws as means to scaling up HIV responses to key population groups such as men who have sex with men (MSM).

There is certainly no utility in Bain maintaining a position in an entity such as CHART. The board of CHART has done the right thing by terminating his contract. I commend UWI for its leadership in this regard.

We cannot simply allow people to say and do things that are detrimental to the well-being of others.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.