Many of us had our suspicions that the election of Donald Trump could derail years of progress made in the fight against HIV, but those suspicions were not confirmed until recently. Several actions taken by this president have made one thing clear: Donald Trump’s presidency is a public health crisis. While many will point to his recent decision to dismiss the entire membership of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, the advisory body that has guided the federal government’s response to HIV since 1995, Trump’s war on HIV goes far beyond disbanding this important and diverse body.
In the face of disturbing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projections that 1 in 2 Black gay men are projected to become HIV positive in their lifetimes, this president submitted a budget to Congress that would eliminate, among several things, the Minority AIDS Initiative and cuts funding for housing programs for people living with HIV — a key need in the fight to achieve increased viral suppression. His budget slashes $150 million from CDC’s HIV prevention programs and eliminates funding for training centers that educate healthcare professionals about the latest in HIV science and best practices for treatment, prevention, and care. Abroad, Trump’s budget proposals paint an even bleaker picture where $800 million in proposed cuts would mean the deaths of four million sub-Saharan Africans over 15 years according to CBS News.
Locally, if adopted, this budget would exacerbate CDC projections of 1 in 13 D.C. residents becoming HIV positive in their lifetimes, harm homeless LGBTQ youth living with HIV, and could hamper our efforts to achieve the goals of Mayor Bowser’s 90-90-90-50 plan to end HIV in our city.
Combine these potential cuts with his fixation on destroying Obamacare, Trump’s desire for the CDC to lose words like “science based” and “transgender” from its vocabulary, his claim that all Haitians have AIDS, and the $1.6 billion cut he made to the 340b drug discount program, which allows HIV clinics like Whitman-Walker and AIDS Healthcare Foundation to buy drugs for their pharmacies at a discounted rate and reinvest the profits into providing health care for low-income people, we come to the sobering conclusion that this presidency could not only rob of us of our ability to end HIV in this generation, but could potentially rob us of more lives than the 1.2 million lives we have already lost to HIV since the first case of the virus was reported.
In the era of Trump, HIV organizations can no longer sit on the sidelines fearful of jeopardizing their 501(c)3 non-profit status by becoming politically involved. The lives of our patients, clients, and friends rely on our ability to speak boldly about how this president does not serve our best interest. Testing, linkage to care, treatment as prevention, PrEP, and all of the other services these organizations offer to our communities won’t mean much if this president is successful in dismantling every program, agency, and pot of money we rely on to keep people healthy.
While most organizations cannot endorse someone for president (personally, my money would be on Oprah), there is nothing stopping us from educating our clients about what this president means for their health.
To that point, as we convey the importance of voting to our stakeholders, we should impress upon them that just like PrEP isn’t a silver bullet, neither is voting. Both are forms of harm reduction and both will still require for us to use other tools in our prevention and care toolbox to achieve the most optimal personal and collective health outcomes. In the coming months, look for an increased focus by Impulse DC on educating people about Trump’s terrible HIV policies and registering our program and event participants to vote.
Throughout the history of the movement to stop the spread of HIV and end the epidemic, our community has always been confronted with bad actors. From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, our community of HIV advocates know very well that the stigma that many of us face in our personal lives can be amplified by those given a platform through elected office. But just as the activists with ACT UP took to the streets to fight Reagan and his war against them, we too will take to the streets and fight Trump and his war against us.
We will fight and we will win!
Devin Barrington-Ward is a social justice advocate and political strategist. He serves as president of Impulse Group DC, an entertainment and social based HIV awareness group.