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The politics of silence is deafening LIVING WITH AIDS

THE JUST completed political campaigns left me shocked and dismayed. It wasn't so much the results that stunned me, but rather how the AIDS epidemic appeared to disappear from the political agenda.

What are the reasons for near silence on the issue? Are other issues crowding out AIDS? Have our elected officials decided that the places where the disease is most intense have fewer people who vote, so why worry about them?

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Do the majority of voters think that AIDS doesn't affect them because they're not at high risk of getting the disease? If that's the case, they're sadly mistaken. AIDS affects everyone in our society. Let's look at some of the key political issues of the day pTC and their relation to AIDS: welfare reform, rising health care costs, job productivity and crime.

* Welfare reform: AIDS is increasingly becoming a poor man's (or poor woman's) disease; the growth in AIDS cases is among the poor, typically intravenous drug users. The more people who become debilitated by the disease, the more our welfare roles will grow.

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* Health care costs: The poor folks who contract AIDS typically don't have health insurance. As a result society ends up bearing the cost of their health care, which is expensive.

* Job productivity: People with the fatal disease are likely at some point not to perform their jobs well and have high absenteeism rates as the disease progresses. That increases the burden of work on their co-workers and costs their employers in the number of sick days used, unproductive time spent on the job, the expense of hiring temporary help, etc.

* Crime: People left debilitated by the disease who have few resources may turn to crime to help them survive.

Thinking that perhaps the lack of discussion on AIDS during the political campaign had been a mutual avoidance, that no candidate wanted to discuss it, I recently sought out an old friend who just won re-election to the Maryland House of Delegates for enlightenment on the issue.

Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis is a seasoned politician who has been quite an annoyance to his colleagues from time to time in pressing for help for Baltimore's poor. When I told him I wanted to discuss the absence of AIDS from the political debates, he readily agreed and stopped by my home to chat.

When asked whether a conspiracy was involved, Delegate Davis said, "No . . . There's no conspiracy of silence." However, he said a shortage of "effective pressure groups capable of articulating our position" effectively takes political leaders off the hook on AIDS.

"In politics, there are top issues and there are bottom issues. AIDS, unfortunately, is still an issue that comes from the bottom. Now, you couple that with the fact that four of the eight city [legislative] districts had no Democratic opposition at all, a thing not uncommon in any political stronghold, and some politicians feel no need to deal with the bottom issues.

"That's what you have in this year's campaign. The bottom issues, like AIDS, never stood a chance."

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Clearly warming to his subject, Delegate Davis went on to explain what he called "Life In the Bottom."

"AIDS is rampant down around Eager [Street] and Broadway," he said, "I know many of these people have never been tested. It bothers me to run into people who will confide in me but not take a few minutes to go to the doctor. That hurts, man. They just figure there's no cure, they feel hopeless for themselves and their children, so they have just given up.

"They continue to use [illegal] drugs to soothe the pain of existence. AIDS has brought the shadow of death down on five families that I know in the past two years. In one family, there was the lost of a brother and his sister. My office conducted a study that indicates this disease could destroy 25 percent of the African-American male population [nationwide] by the year 2015. That's a lot of people . . . and it just doesn't make any sense."

Needless to say, I found this last news quite disturbing and wanted to know what if anything his office was planning to do about it.

"The fight against AIDS and drug proliferation have always been part of my agenda. I am tired of ordering drug addicts off my steps and of trying to deal with a system that breaks its back to convince poor people it doesn't matter whether they live or die. I am here to offer my services to any group that is serious in its fight against AIDS."

After talking to Delegate Davis, I was still suspicious about a conspiracy of silence. Perhaps not so firmly convinced of it as before our conversation, but still drawn to that conviction never the less. The silence about the plague was just too loud in this past political season.

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H. B. Johnson Jr., a playwright and poet, writes occasionally about living with AIDS.


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