BEIRUT — “This is not simply a candlelight event. It is a celebration, albeit a painful one, as we commemorate people who have passed away because of [AIDS], but there is some joy and hope for the people living with it,” said Nadia Badran, executive director of SIDC (Soins Infirmiers et Developpement Communautaire), at a candlelight memorial for those infected with AIDS virus.
SIDC provides health care, treatment and support to people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS [PLWH].
The memorial, which took place at the Beirut Souks on June 8, was the seventh in which SIDC took part, organizing it in conjunction with the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, an annual event held on the third Sunday in May. This year's vigil was held around the world on May 19, but because that date fell during Ramadan this year, the memorial in Lebanon was postponed until early June.
Organizers estimate that around 200 people attended the event, some traveling from elsewhere in the country to participate. Other institutions, such as Vivre Positif, an association working with people infected with HIV, were also involved.
The event began with Bet and Sweat, a round of group calisthenics to encourage everyone to be active as part of their regime to stay healthy. There were also musical performances. Votive candles were lit and placed on the ground atop a large red ribbon, the symbol expressing HIV/AIDS awareness and solidarity with people living with the disease. SIDC distributed pamphlets about the services it offers.
Badran, in the opening speech, stressed the importance of the event for educating people, especially young people, about HIV prevention and “to support people living with HIV and combat all forms of discrimination, marginalization and stigmatization against them.”
She also stressed the right of the PLWH to social and health services so they can be productive members of society, not simply patients. “This means that they should not be dismissed from work or school for being PLWHs,” she said. SIDC has documented instances of people losing jobs over the past five years in order to pressure authorities to take action to prevent such treatement.
“Lebanon records 120 new infections every year,” Badran told those in attendance. She also said the infection rate in the country has not begun to decline, unlike in some parts of the world. “This is proof of the lack of awareness in our society and how people are shy about it, as it is treated as a taboo instead of treating it as a public health issue,” she remarked.
“Some treat us like we have this serious illness," a person with HIV who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity said, "Through this event, we want to show that HIV is not something to be scared of and tell the world that PLWHs are ordinary people, and I believe we succeeded in conveying this message. Most important, we want to tell young people to be careful and stress that associations provide periodic examinations and prevention consultations discreetly, and they should not be afraid to get tested if they have the slightest doubt.
“People have taken pictures with us, and year after year, we notice that people are responding more positively,” he added. “To reconcile with ourselves and our community is really something. Although we have to receive treatment for the rest of our lives, at least we can accept ourselves.”
In terms of this year's gathering and vigil, Patrick Farah, an event volunteer, told Al-Monitor, “The event was on a Saturday, and the place was filled with people, some held candles and many asked us various questions. For instance, people who had no idea what HIV was and thought it was a dangerous disease asked what the event was for. When we explained to them, they were surprised to hear that it was like having diabetes and that it was not fatal.” Farah remarked how Bet and Sweat had been a popular activity.
According to the National AIDS Program attached to the Ministry of Health, as of November 2018 the number of registered cases of HIV in Lebanon stood at 2,366. There were 160 new infections in 2018. The highest number of reported cases is among those aged 30-49 (49.4%). In terms of HIV transmission, 98% of cases stem from unprotected sex.