Following the arrest of 11 men in a Manila business district hotel room on Tuesday on suspicion of using illegal drugs, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) officers unlawfully disclosed that one of the suspects was HIV positive. That set off a media frenzy, with advocates of gay rights and the rights of people living with HIV lambasting the drug agency for an appalling breach of privacy in violation of the country’s AIDS law.
As World AIDS Day approaches on Friday, the incident is a sad reminder of how much more the Philippines needs to do to ensure the rights of people living with HIV are respected and upheld. HIV rights advocates point out that the HIV disclosure highlights continuing discrimination and stigmatization of people with HIV in the Philippines.
The issue takes on more urgency given the Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region, with new HIV cases per year jumping from 4,300 to 10,000 between 2010 and 2016. Most new infections – up to 83 percent – are among men and transgender women who have sex with men. In August, the government declared the epidemic a “national emergency.”
In this context, discrimination and stigma against people living with HIV serve as a double-whammy. This is especially tragic because, as it is, the Philippine government has failed to implement proven prevention measures in responding to the HIV crisis. It still does not have a national condom promotion strategy. Safer sex education in schools is practically nonexistent. President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs” has pushed injecting drug users underground, a group at especially high risk of contracting HIV.
Apart from violating privacy laws, the PDEA agents’ actions may stigmatize people living with HIV and men who have sex with men, threatening to put them on Duterte’s list of those, “you cannot rehabilitate,” used to justify his drug war. This sets back the fight against HIV in the Philippines.