Inhuman callousness, rather than shortage of funds, is the main enemy of HIV/AIDS-work in India. Six HIV-positive Indians, some of them already quite ill, were recently held up at the international airport in Mumbai for not having their yellow-fever clearance because they were returning from Uganda, where they had gone to attend an HIV/AIDS conference. They were then packed off to a hospital and will be locked up in it until November 6, as a quarantine measure. The airport officials who subjected them to this treatment do not know, or pretend not to know, that the World Health Organization exempts HIV+ persons from the yellow fever vaccination, since the vaccine may prove to be harmful, even fatal, for them. Even when this was pointed out, the airport bureaucracy remained inflexible.
But the matter is not merely a case of ignorance. There is corruption in it as well. The airport officials demanded $ 100 from the delegates, and those who paid up were released without having to produce any papers. Second — and this is more important — the special misbehaviour reserved for the HIV+ delegates had everything to do with how such people are generally regarded and treated in India. They were sniggered at, and their speaking up for their own rights was brush- ed aside, followed by an entirely unmannerly, inconsiderate and disrespectful use of force. In the hospital, they were locked in like prisoners and not given anything to eat and drink. Everybody concerned was absolutely confident that he could get away with such behaviour. The head of the Maharashtra AIDS Control had the effrontery to say that this was all done for the “benefit” of the six persons. A lot of money is now pouring into Maharashtra and the rest of India for the prevention and treatment of AIDS. Yet any awareness of the human-rights or legal aspects of HIV/AIDS among government officials, hospital staff as well as the common people seems a far cry even after about 25 years of the epidemic. The Indian scenario is still dangerously backward, with most of the real work being done non-governmentally. The general level of ignorance and prejudice still remains frightening.