The government’s efforts to ban HIV-positive people from public baths highlight the chauvinism those with the virus suffer.
Recent draft legislation forbidding entry to HIV-positive men and women and carriers of other sexually transmitted infections into bathing venues in China has caused fury among campaigners and health professionals.
The proposal originated in a draft of The Bathing Industry Management Regulations, published by the ministry of commerce, as part of the government’s drive to tighten controls on under-regulated massage houses and spas. The document orders such facilities to clearly display signs forbidding the entrance of HIV and STI carriers.
Whatever their origins, these regulations are hugely regressive and damaging to the fight for greater awareness of and openness towards HIV in China. Not only is this ban impossible to enforce, it points to a baffling ignorance of basic science by the bureaucrats and legal professionals who drew up the document. Their attitudes, based on backward beliefs of infection through bodily contact or saliva, is the very reason why HIV and hepatitis carriers are the focus of entrenched social stigma in China. A survey of more than 10,000 people by the popular Twitter-like microblog Weibo following the announcements showed that more than 72% of respondents supported the proposals.
The UN estimates there are around 740,000 HIV-positive people in China, a number growing rapidly due to changing attitudes towards pre-marital sex and the lack of sex education in schools. General knowledge about safe sex remains low among the young, as shown by an Insight China survey where a significant proportion of young people said their knowledge of sex came from “firsthand experience” or “the internet”.
HIV has long generated a culture of fear in mainland China. Often viewed as a disease of the west, it features in urban legends of chain-infection through malicious, needle-yielding carriers. Nowadays, it also conjures up the horrors of public health tragedies that resulted in “HIV villages” in China – a series of botched local “blood for cash schemes” that led to the infection of whole village populations, including 300,000 farmers in Henan province in 2001.
The social discrimination against HIV patients extends to public institutions and organisations, with hospitals known to turn away HIV carriers for treatment when suffering other illnesses. In a case that generated attention on Weibo last year, a 25-year-old HIV-positive man falsified his health records to be granted cancer treatment after being refused by two hospitals.
Discrimination is equally deep-rooted in the workplace, as mandatory “pre-employment health checks” often form part of the hiring process: a hurdle for those with HIV and hepatitis. While the law in China deems such practices illegal, employers are rarely held to account. This was clear last year when the first ever case of compensation for a teacher who was denied a job as a result of her HIV-positive status came to court. Though this was heralded as a landmark by many, the fact that HIV-positive candidates cannot qualify for China’s civil service shows that the war against inequality is still in its infancy. After all, China only lifted its 20-year ban prohibiting foreigners with HIV from entering the country in 2008 – ahead of the Olympics.
Following attacks from the UN and health professionals, the ministry of commerce is likely to withdraw the stipulation on entry to bathing venues from its draft proposal. But having made such a serious mistake, the ministry should issue a formal explanation based on scientific facts. This , together with efforts by NGOs and health organisations, would present a major step towards dispelling entrenched myths about HIV transmission and prognosis, as well as help to popularize the science of public health.
The government needs to confront the growing number of cases of HIV in an open and transparent way. Sex education urgently needs to be reassessed and standardized in the national curriculum, in a way that addresses China’s rapid social changes with its traditional values and conservatism. Health professionals and policymakers from within China and countries with effective sexual health policies should also play a key part in this process.
The existing laws on discrimination must hold to account the organisations that carry out health-related discrimination in the workplace. But most important, the government needs to begin by setting an example for society, by rooting out its own prejudices and allowing HIV-positive people to work in its administration.
Culled from Guardian