The longtime activist assesses what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be done to reach the goal of an AIDS-free generation.
Phill Wilson, CEO, Black AIDS Institute
Tavis: As the HIV/AIDS pandemic enters its fourth decade now, scientific breakthroughs mean that the disease thankfully is no longer the death sentence that it once was.
But the toll HIV/AIDS takes on individuals, families, and communities is still rather significant, particularly in African American communities, where Black men and women are 44 percent of all new infections, even though only 14 percent of the nation’s population.
Confronting this epidemic, then, head-on is what Phill Wilson does every day as president, founder, and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. Phill, once again, I just want to say good to see you, and it is always good to see you for a couple of reasons, but I’m tired of having this conversation. (Laughter) If you know what I mean.
Phill Wilson: I know exactly what you mean.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s good to see you because one, you’re still on the front lines doing the work, it’s good to see you because you’ve been living with HIV for how many years now?
Wilson: Thirty-four years.
Tavis: That’s amazing to me.
Wilson: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Thirty-four years and you’re still –
Wilson: Yeah. The doctors thought it was going to be 24 months.
Tavis: Yeah. Wait, what do you make of that?
Wilson: Well, I think that (laughs), one thing I say is that I have lots of work to do, and so I’m getting time to get that work done, and I think a lot of it is that very early on I got involved.
I’ve kept myself up-to-date on the latest information, and I have great doctors. I guess I’m a personification of what happens when you have the love and support of family and friends and you have access to proper healthcare.
Tavis: Yeah, and for those who don’t have the latter especially?
Wilson: Well, there are countless of folks who are not here. My Rolodex, when there were days of Rolodexes, was full of folks who didn’t make it. I still get calls from folks, from mothers, often, whose sons or daughters have just died from HIV and AIDS, and there’s no reason in 2013 that I should still be getting those calls.
Tavis: How did this, in short, go from being a gay, white male disease to now, if I can call it this, a Black disease?
Wilson: Well, I take – I get hit from that all the time. I always say it’s a Black disease, and some would say that it was never a gay white man’s disease; it was promoted as a gay white man’s disease. Globally, it was always a people of color disease.
It’s a disease that’s heavily driven by poverty. But in the United States, where Black folks represent 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. population, from the very, very beginning, we were 25 percent of the cases. Today we’re nearly 50 percent of the cases.
But there are a number of factors. Lack of education – we were slow to respond to the epidemic. By the way, I’m very, very pleased with the kind of response we’re getting in Black communities today, but we were slow to respond to the epidemic. And lack of access to healthcare.
Tavis: Poverty is linked to so many things, as we well know.
Tavis: You just made the link to HIV/AIDS. But for those who don’t get the linkage between poverty and HIV/AIDS because HIV/AIDS many people see as the result of a bad choice.
Tavis: What’s that got to do with poverty? So what’s the link?
Wilson: Well, the biggest link is that poor people most often don’t have access to healthcare, poor people most often don’t have access to information, and poor people most often have to do maladaptive things just to survive.
When people talk about poor choices, that sometimes those choices are the matter of you choose to behave in a certain way because you need a place to sleep tonight. You choose to behave a certain way because your children need to eat.
Those are the choices that people are talking about. They’re Sophie’s choices, Tavis, and so poverty is connected to HIV in a very, very real term.
Tavis: With all of the information that does exist about HIV/AIDS, and maybe I’m just missing something here, but it seems to me that there’s been such a preponderance of information over the years about what the disease is.
What it isn’t, what it can do, what it can’t do, and that if left untreated, and it will kill you, that I’m having a hard time juxtaposing the amount of information out there with the increase in these numbers. Does that make sense?
Wilson: Sure. It makes complete sense.
Tavis: How is that possible?
Wilson: Well, one of the reasons it happens, and the reason why we keep talking about it, is people often get stuck where they enter. So if you got introduced to HIV at a certain point in time, let’s say 20 years ago, 25 years ago, you get stuck there.
One of the things that has happened – now it doesn’t feel that way between you and I because we talk about it all the time. But by and large, AIDS has not been on the front pages, and so people are stuck in the HIV of the ’80s and the early ’90s.
But in 2013, HIV and AIDS is a totally, totally different disease. We have an opportunity and an obligation to try to end the AIDS epidemic, but people need to have the new information. I think if we can get them the new information, people would think about it in a different way.
Tavis: I want to pick up on your point about the fact that HIV/AIDS has not been on the front pages of late. I can tell you things that have been. Autism is getting all the attention, certainly where children are concerned. I’m not saying it shouldn’t. I’m not trying to compare diseases or illnesses.
Wilson: Right, absolutely.
Tavis: Or health challenges. Autism, a lot of press; cancer, always a lot of press. NFL, the players wearing pink for a whole month. So they’re doing a wonderful job on cancer and making it a top issue.
So back to your point of earlier. Back in the ’80s, certainly in the ’90s, AIDS was the disease. So, like, what happened? How did it get pushed off of, to use your point, the front pages?
Wilson: Well, I think part of it is just fatigue. With all the news cycle fatigue, people only want to talk about something for a certain period of time. Secondly, I think, is that in the early ’80s the folks who were perceived to be the most impacted were also folks who had a bully pulpit.
As the disease has gotten browner over time, and today, when the vast majority of people who are living with HIV are either Black or Brown and the bully pulpit is not as loud for those populations.
Another issue is that when we’re talking about white gay men in the early ’80s, there’s a certain sense of privilege and entitlement, so when HIV/AIDS happened to them, it was like this wasn’t supposed to happen to us.
So there was anger connected to that, because it was not supposed to happen to us. For Black and Brown folks, for women, for poor people, for young folks, bad things happen to us all the time, and so the amount of response usually is tempered, because we’re not surprised when bad things happen to us. So those contributed to how it fell off the front pages.
Tavis: That latter point is a deep point that people don’t often consider. But while it is the case that we, as in Black and Brown folk, don’t have the larger-than-life megaphones that many of our white colleagues have in media and beyond, there are a few of us who have some platforms these days.
So I ask this question: What agency do we have that we are not taking advantage of? What agency do we have that we are not using to use the platforms that we do have to get that message out as others did when they were being killed by this disease?
Wilson: Okay, so we are going to go there, huh?
Tavis: Yeah, let’s go there. (Laughter)
Wilson: Okay. Well, I think that Black America drives culture, pop culture in America. Other communities have utilized that to their advantage. I think now, the thing that I would ask, we are in the end of the year and there are all these films that are coming out around Black subjects and what have you.
A lot of Black artists are getting a lot of attention. So if we have Black artists and Black celebrities who would pay attention to this issue, I would say give me a month, (laughs) and we could turn this epidemic around. If we got all of the resources that we have in our communities, that would be huge.
Tavis: Why do you think that isn’t the case?
Wilson: I think that it’s a difficult subject. I have a member on my board who is a heterosexual man, and he’s been on our board for a long time and people say to him all the time, “Well, I didn’t know that you were gay.”
He’s not gay, but because he takes on this issue people think that he’s gay. So there’s stigma that’s associated with that, and I think that stigma really undermines our ability to kind of address this issue in the way we can, particularly now when we have an opportunity to really make a difference.
Tavis: How do you read the potential of Obamacare on this particular issue if, in fact, the hate against it ever ceases?
Wilson: Right, right. Well, the Affordable Care Act is critically important for people living with HIV. There are roughly 1.1 million Americans living with HIV. Roughly around 300,000 of us are eligible for the insurance marketplaces, so it’s huge for us.
But for all 1.1 million of us there are things in the Affordable Care Act that are critically important. The fact that preexisting conditions go away. If you have HIV, you might not be able to get health insurance just because you have a preexisting condition.
You might lose your insurance because you have a preexisting condition. Today, we have treatments that people with HIV can live as long and as healthy as I’m living. But yet roughly only 30 percent of folks who are living with HIV are on treatment, and only 25 percent of them are in optimal care, which means that they’ve driven the virus down so it’s no longer able to transmit the virus.
With the Affordable Care Act, all of those folks can be on treatment, and not only will it be better for them or better for us, but it also is critical to helping to end the AIDS epidemic. Because when people with HIV are on treatment, then they no longer have the ability to transmit the virus.
Tavis: I wonder to what extent the success that we have had has become your enemy. That is to say when we see Phill Wilson and Magic Johnson living 25 and 30 years, et cetera, to what extent does the success end up being what you have to wrestle with?
Wilson: Well, I think that that’s a challenge, but the message that I want to say is that there’s nothing special about me. That if we can create an environment where people with HIV have the love and support of family and friends, and we have access to treatment, all of us can be a Magic Johnson.
But you can’t do that unless, for example, you know your HIV status, to people have to get tested, and that you’re on treatment, which means you have to be connected to a doctor.
Tavis: Finally here, to your earlier point that the Blacker and the Browner things get, the less they are on the front pages, and I suspect the more difficult it is to not just raise awareness but to raise funds to do the kind of awareness work, so give me some sense of how you all are managing.
Wilson: Well, these are difficult times. The government is pulling back on some resources, foundations are pulling back. So one of the things, you know, there’s the whole notion of FUBU – for us, by us.
So one of the things that we’re doing at the Black AIDS Institute is that we’re partnering with Black entrepreneurs. So we’re starting a World AIDS Day, a national raffle. Car Pros Kia has donated an automobile to us.
We’re saying to our community we can fight this with our own resources. So we’re inviting people to come to www.blackaids.org, enter the raffle, and not only do you have a chance to win a brand new car, but you also can fight HIV at the same time.
Tavis: I’m glad that you are still doing the work that you’re doing. I hate that you have to do it, but if it has to be done, I’m glad you’re doing it and you’re doing it so well.
Wilson: Until it’s done.
Tavis: Until it’s done. Good to see you, man.
Wilson: Thank you.
Tavis: World AIDS Day, December 1st.
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