All posts by Dolma Rose Ombadykow

Moralizing Bodies: HIV and the Politics of Aid

In America, the image of HIV/AIDS activism has consistently been perpetuated and co-opted by the primarily upper class, cisgender, gay male members of the LGBTQ+ community. While I have no intention of undermining the experiences of suffering of anyone with HIV, the dominant narrative perpetuated by films like The Normal Heart[1] are wildly under-representative of the complexities and burden of this disease. The reality of HIV/AIDS – that it is one of the largest killers of people in the lowest income countries worldwide such that 66% of all HIV related deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa alone in 2014[2] – is one that can’t be ignored.

The privileging of the upper-class, western HIV experience in the understood cultural history of this disease is implicated by the example of Haiti, which Paul Farmer catalogs in his chapter, “The Exotic and the Mundane”.[3] Farmer argues that the spread of HIV in urban Haiti (mostly centered in the suburb Carrefour, home of Port-au-Prince’s redlight district[4]) is a textbook example of the “geography of blame.” Measures of guilt and accusation have been tied to the spread of HIV since it’s initial rise. Though the conservative right in America were quick to blame the “immoral,” urban men who had sex with men (MSM) for the spread of the disease, placing a moral judgment on a biological disease outcome and therefore conflating the biological body with the moral one, seropositive Haitian immigrants in America “denied homosexual activity or intravenous drug use.”[5]

Farmer criticizes American media outlets for effectively blaming Haiti for the American HIV epidemic, exoticizing and alienating the nation, as exemplified by Vanity Fair’s description of Haiti as the “black hole” of our hemisphere[6] in addition to exploiting Haitian voodoo acts as a potential source of transmission[7]. The relationship between cases of HIV in America and Haiti are clear: wealthy American vacationers came to Port-au-Prince and transmitted the disease to local sex workers, who, though many self-identified as heterosexual, would be paid into homosexual activity.[8] This conflated issues of homophobic sentiment in the U.S. with racial, gender, and economic inequality in Haiti. From here, it was found that the largest population of HIV positive individuals in Haiti were female sex workers, and Haiti became the evidence needed to suggest that HIV transmission was “more efficient” from men to women.[9] By 1986, it was impossible to deny that heterosexual activity was an ‘accepted risk factor.’[10]

Soon, a grand sentimental switch occurs in the evangelical right. Franklin Graham convinced the senator Jess Helms that “AIDS afflicted the ‘blameless’ just as often as it afflicted homosexuals.”[11] By positioning AIDS efforts towards that of the blameless, inherently moral children, we quickly saw a huge increase in the political capital of the west in AIDS treatment. The Clinton Administration, which had at first sided with pharmaceutical companies in the debate surrounding South Africa’s Medicines Act,[12] an attempt to provide more affordable, generic versions of antiretroviral therapies to HIV positive individuals, soon sided with the suffering and began providing aid directly to mothers and children who were HIV positive. By applying a moral judgment on those who were deserving of aid, there becomes a complication in the way that medications are transferred.

However, it was also this moral judgment that stirred action from abroad. The 3×5 campaign, which the WHO established as a goal to provide ARV treatment to three million people living with AIDS by the end of 2005, was unique in its efforts of establishing success as a measure of the number of people reached as opposed to the amount of money raised. By humanizing donor support under the framework of the “deserving” ill, we see the perpetuation of the implications of moral medicine. While it took until 2007 for the 3×5 campaign to be completed, it was considered a massive success in “galvanizing” the global AIDS effort.[13] By centering this mission around that of the suffering children – the people behind the disease and not the financial needs of the disease treatments itself – we see a re-affirmation of the complex power structures inherent in the way that the wealthy choose to spend their money – along moral and political lines.



[1] Cast by almost exclusively white males, it is very clear where Hollywood is looking to spend their money insofar as narratives surrounding the HIV crisis.

Murphy, Ryan, Larry Kramer, Scott Ferguson, Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, Jim Parsons, Matthew Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Julio F. De, Alfred Molina, Cliff Martinez, Adam Penn, Danny Moder, and Larry Kramer. The Normal Heart. , 2014.

[2] The American Foundation for AIDS Reserach.

[3] Farmer, Paul. Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

[4] Ibid. 103

[5] Ibid. 99

[6] Ibid. 100

[7] Ibid. 106

[8] Ibid. 119, 122.

[9] Ibid. 113

[10] Ibid. 114

[11]Messac & Prabhu, Redefining the Possible: The Global AIDS Response. Reimagining Global Health: An Introduction. ed Paul Farmer. Berkeley, Calif: University of California press, 2013. Print. p 127.

[12] Ibid. 122

[13] Ibid. 114