The Maryland General Assembly is flirting again with legislation that would compromise the privacy rights of people with AIDS. The state government says it wants mandatory testing of certain populations, particularly health-care workers, to protect the public and to help people who are infected get the treatment they need.
Virtually every medical and scientific authority to have an opinion on the subject, including the federal Centers for Disease Control, says that mandatory testing will not achieve those goals. Not only is it useless, they argue, but it is prohibitively expensive to implement.
Yet many legislators, apparently responding to the demands of constituents, pontificate in high moral terms about ensuring the public health and caring for the people who are sick. They seem hell-bent on enacting some sort of mandatory testing of somebody -- anybody! -- so they can say they've "done something" about AIDS.
People in the AIDS community say that if the testing and reporting proposals become law, those who need help will be further alienated, virtually driven away from the social services and medical help necessary to halt the spread of AIDS. Then Maryland would have failed utterly to protect the public's health, or provide medical help to people who desperately need it.
Consider the state's proposal for reporting HIV infection. The state AIDS administration says it must have mandatory reporting of HIV infection by name. It says that it needs the information to track the spread of the epidemic, and to determine the depth to which HIV has penetrated the society.
The alternative proposal -- reporting using a numerical identifier that supplies all the statistical information the state AIDS administration says it needs, but without giving the state the means to identify individuals -- has not received a serious hearing, and is in danger of being killed.
Why? Why is it so important to have people's names? Does the state have a hidden agenda? Does it want to round up people with HIV infection and put them in camps? (In the past, it has seriously considered legislation that would have quarantined people with HIV infection.)
A lot of HIV-infected people believe that is exactly what the state wants. They cite precedents like the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. They cite the overwhelming indifference displayed at every level of government to the plight of people with AIDS. They cite the candidacies of David Duke and Patrick Buchanan: If they worry that George Bush will be re-elected to continue to neglect AIDS, they are horrified that Patrick Buchanan may upset him. They are afraid that the condemnation and judgment of the meanest elements of society will be imposed upon them through government.
Given the tragically deluded, but still prevailing attitude that AIDS only affects gay men, is it any wonder that people with AIDS are gravely concerned? Given the judgmental and punitive "solutions" proposed by our leaders for the desperate problems people with AIDS face in America, is it any wonder that the AIDS NTC community doesn't endorse them?
Given the failure of government to respond adequately to the threat AIDS holds for all Americans, the appalling lack of compassion for people with AIDS, and the repeated and callous discrimination people with AIDS must endure, is it any wonder that they oppose government-imposed mandatory testing or reporting?
Given all these things, is it any wonder that people with AIDS are terrified of the government?
Garey Lambert is a director of AIDS Action Baltimore, Inc., and associate editor of the Baltimore Alternative.