Tuesday, February 23, 2010

HIV/AIDS in the workplace

We’ve known about it for quite sometime now but most of us have not gone to town with the information because many among us felt that there were better ways to “announce” it. Don’t get me wrong. I also share the belief that people need to know that there has been a marked increase in HIV infections among young professionals. I’ve written about the dramatic increase in HIV infections in this column recently.

I believed that people in the call center industry needed to be informed that according to recent data from the Department of Health, there had been an alarming increase in the number of HIV infections among call center agents. However, I felt that this kind of information needed to be explained well. Better still, this kind of information needed to be supported by a concrete program of action so that people didn’t have to go into the default reaction mode—shock and denial. I would have wanted government and the community of non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention to engage the call center industry in a more proactive and productive dialogue instead of shocking them with the information through media.

But it seems newly appointed Secretary of Health Esperanza Cabral had other ideas. She went public with the information recently. And as can be expected, media sensationalized it. ABS-CBN even did a series of stories on it for a week. HIV/AIDS is once again a favorite topic although I have a sneaking suspicion that the attention won’t last very long—at least not long enough to actually impel people to push more and better HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

This has actually happened many times in the past already. I am not saying Secretary Cabral may be simply paying lip service to the HIV/AIDS issue. As an HIV/AIDS activist who has been working on HIV/AIDS prevention since the eighties, I am fervently hoping and praying that Cabral is serious and sincere in pursuing a more comprehensive, more focused, and more intensive HIV/AIDS prevention program and control program.

My cynicism has basis. All newly appointed Health Secretaries have always used HIV/AIDS to call attention to themselves. There’s really nothing quite like HIV/AIDS as an issue. It is a medical issue, yes. But it is also an explosive social issue as it inevitably encompasses discussions about sexual practices, vulnerable communities, and consequently, discrimination and stigmatization. It is a development issue because HIV/AIDS comes with a great cost and a third-world country such as the Philippines cannot really afford the economic cost of an HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is an economic issue because it affects individuals who are at the prime of their lives—people who are productive and who can contribute the most to their families and to society.

Unfortunately, the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention programs have obviously been a total failure after Juan Flavier’s and Carmencita Reodica’s terms as health secretary. How else do we explain the fact that infection rates have officially doubled last year? We used to be a best-practice showcase in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention and the world looked to the Philippines for lessons in effective HIV/AIDS prevention and control. Today, most non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention are dead. The very few who are left are gasping for dear breath. There’s hardly any money for HIV/AIDS prevention programs. In fact, there is actually no new money in the system for HIV/AIDS prevention. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Because of the renewed media attention, I received a couple of calls from friends in the call center industry who inquired about the veracity of the Health Secretary’s information. I assured them that Secretary Cabral’s information is founded on empirical data. Data about HIV/AIDS infections in this country are actually very public information and can be accessed online easily. But as in the past, my friends were in full defense mode citing all kinds of possible explanations for the supposed glitch in the statistics. They cited several possible gaps that account for the reported high infection rates among call center agents. Denial is a common reaction when faced with alarming information, particularly about something like HIV/AIDS.

My friends wanted to know if there was a possibility that more call agents tested positive for HIV because the call center industry happened to be the industry with the most number of employees whose demographic profile fit the global profile of those most vulnerable for HIV infection: Young (between the ages of 15-39), sexually active, productive (i.e., with money to spend), etc. This is possible, of course.

My friends also theorized that the call center industry’s liberal recruitment and hiring policies—unlike, say, banks that would supposedly have more stringent hiring requirements in terms of lifestyles and values—probably account for the high incidence of HIV infections among call center agents. Call centers are supposedly more open to hiring candidates who are more outgoing, more sexually active, more open- minded and prone to experimentation. In short, my friends were saying that the phenomenon is not really borne out of factors that are inherent in the call center industry—it’s just that the industry hosts people who are probably more vulnerable to HIV infection. I agreed with them on this score too; all of these are highly feasible.

It is unfortunate that it seems the call center industry seems to have been singled out as breeding ground for HIV/AIDS infection. I don’t think this was really the intent. And I think people should really stop making a causal relationship between the call center industry and HIV/AIDS infections. The last thing we need is for some sanctimonious group or people to being attacking the industry for promoting immorality, and worse, to begin advocating for stringent controls for the industry.

But like I said, this is the nature of the HIV/AIDS issue—there is inherent stigma and discrimination attached to people living with HIV/AIDS or towards people suspected of being susceptible to it. This is why the natural reaction for most people who have been exposed to HIV is to go into denial or to go underground. Which is why HIV information, prevention and education programs need to be empowering to begin with rather than threatening and fear-inducing.

At any rate, the challenge now is putting in place effective HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs. This includes HIV/AIDS in the workplace programs because whether we like it or not, we’ll have to start learning how to manage a workplace that has become a little more challenging than ever before. Whether we like it or not we’ll have to begin putting in place programs that address the distinct needs of people living with HIV/AIDS at work.

Source: Manila Standard Today

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