On this AIDS Candlelight Memorial day, the COVID-19 virus is obliging us to gather in a virtual space and reflect on the terrible toll of the HIV virus, which has been responsible for over 30 million deaths worldwide since the 1980s.
This year, many of us will see parallels between the early years of the AIDS pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic: the race to collect data and understand the science; widespread fear and anxiety about devastating social, health and economic impacts; and the absence of viable vaccines or antiviral medications.
As with COVID-19, New Zealand was fortunate to experience a low rate of viral infection during the AIDS pandemic, and our numbers of HIV positive tests have remained comparatively low by international standards. However, our rainbow community was hit particularly hard, and continues to bear the brunt of AIDs-related conditions.
This evening, people around New Zealand will join people around the world who will be remembering friends, loved ones and family members whose lives were brought short by HIV/AIDS, before the advent of medications that would have enabled them to live out a normal life-span.
Tonight people will remember also the remarkable resilience of the rainbow community in the 1980s, when HIV-positive people experienced terrible social exclusion and stigma. We will remember their courage and their determined advocacy for research into effective treatment options.
The rainbow community has done much to reduce the lingering stigma experienced by people living with HIV/AIDs – and to promote the message that early testing will also enable early and more effective treatment.
I hope that we can all be inspired by that sense of community spirit, compassion and resolve in our efforts to combat COVID-19.