Sorry About the AIDS

In 1924, Raoul Dandurand expressed a common Canadian worldview to the League of Nations when he described Canada as “a fireproof house far from the sources of conflagration.” Eighty-five years later, in a global community that has since endured recessions, depressions, a world war, a cold war, military coups, genocides, displacements, pandemics and large-scale environmental degradation, this sense of naiveté and disconnect still exists. While the feeling of security is one of the most treasured and enviable aspects of life in a relatively prosperous and affluent developed nation, I for one had never fully realized the isolation it imposed. My crash course in learning how seemingly emotionally and psychologically unequipped many Canadians are for confronting major world issues came this July, in the form of an interactive exhibit mounted by World Vision Canada.

Intended to educate Canadians on the spread of AIDS in Africa — the suffering it causes and the ways change could be effected — the exhibit retold the true stories of three African youth through first-person narratives. Visitors listened to these stories using headsets attached to expensive MP3 players. I heard the story of Olivia, a 16-year-old girl who was a victim of rape and a single mother, and only later discovered her hardships were worse than she could have imagined since she had also contracted AIDS. The narrator for my tour explained how fear and misinformation regarding the spread of HIV stigmatizes the condition and undermines efforts at AIDS prevention.

The statistics on AIDS in Africa are staggering. A recent Report on the global AIDS epidemic by the United Nations concluded that, as of 2007, over 20 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are living with AIDS — nearly 12 per cent of the region’s total population. Compared to the prevalence of HIV in Africa, Canada might be a fireproof house after all. By the end of 2007, the number of Canadians diagnosed with AIDS was 20,746, or 0.066 per cent of the population. The social significance of this disparity was the most shocking revelation of everything World Vision presented.

The second-to-last section of the tour — the last area visitors saw before being asked to donate to World Vision and sponsor a child — consisted of a very modest church and a large bulletin board. The walls of the church were covered with photographs of people living with AIDS, while the bulletin board was an invitation for Canadians to write to those people with words of empathy and encouragement. What do you say to someone you’ve never met, living on the other side of the world, who has just found out they have HIV? No one seemed to know. The most common response on the bulletin board was “I’m sorry.” The phrase is considered so typically Canadian, but can it adequately respond to the devastation, fear, pain and isolation that such a diagnosis would provoke? Is there any valid response that a dweller of the “fireproof house” can jot onto a 3-by-3-inch Post-it?

Being Canadian — or living in any developed country — has distinct privileges and benefits. Ideally, the security, education and empowerment so many of us enjoy make us well-positioned to help others. So, did World Vision invite its pavilion’s visitors to participate in an exercise in futility when it implied that hope could be so easily extended, or were visitors at a loss of words and ideas for how to alleviate human suffering? All in all, it makes a strong case for why Canadian donations are so important to fighting the spread of AIDS — talking ain’t doing and apparently we don’t even know what to say.

– Mallory Richard is currently taking a MA in history at the U of M.