They came for me last week

Who represented me last Tuesday?

Our Prime Minister thinks he got a mandate from local government elections to bring government closer to the people.

That memo hasn’t reached staff in his own Office. Charged with assembling representation from affected communities for a reconstituted National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), they received strident criticism from some community advocates. I was one.

Instead of listening, they dug in their heels, responding to the “jook” by using the power of the Office in which they serve to have two advocates raising those concerns dragged out of Tuesday’s NACC launch. Just before everyone stood up, in ties and smart red dresses and red-ribbon pins, and sang “Here every creed and race Find an equal place.”

They didn’t bother to tell the Minister of State.

“Government wants us eating hors d’œuvres, not making policy” said the leaflet we politely handed out before the event, asking attendees to help us strengthen communities’ voices on the 31-member Cabinet-appointed body.

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4216_296_bI’d just laughed and greeted UN Special Envoy Eddie Greene and Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, handing each the paper. Next thing, I was being hauled from the room. It wasn’t a trigger response. Hotel workers made clear they had prior directives from event organizers to do so. One snatched the leaflets out my colleague’s hand. Men shoved her and me through the building’s corridors and lobby and out the entrance, threatening to call police.

Did I say I’d received an invitation to the event? Coat-of-arms and all. And a reminder call.

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Government got very close to me.

Who knows what banning and blacklisting will now follow?

I’m unwounded. But what has been the damage to the National AIDS Coordinating Committee?

Along with their instruments of appointment, NACC members were delivered a powerful visual lesson by the Prime Minister’s office—that it has the power to throw out people who speak up. That’s the reason slaves are whipped in public.

Most painful was my NACC colleagues’ silence. Everyone stood by as I was being thrown out.

Not one called to see how I was.

Was that the representation I was assured I and others in vulnerable communities already have on the body? Some members have spoken out for us in the past. But can we rely they’ll have our backs and stand up to Government when it matters. On Tuesday, they either didn’t have the will, or the power, to protect me.

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Pastor Niemöller’s terse poem recalls people’s repeated silence in Nazi Germany, until their group was the one they came for—and there was no one left to speak out. Though they came for me last week, it wasn’t for the gas ovens.

But the incident illustrates a huge problem in this tiny, barely postcolonial country: our insecure obsession with authority. It drives communities away from government.

We forget it is what authorised colonialism’s violations. And authority exists nowhere where it matters. Alongside breathtaking violence and corruption, so much of our lives is spent navigating pointless rules, following archaic protocols, and showing deference.

We need sharper tools for governance than authority.

One person did reach out. The Minister of State assured me she hadn’t had me ejected.

I’m encouraged I could still get close to government. People get HIV in the first place because we’ve been thrown out and disregarded. Often with authority. Government workers’ authoritarian response to activism Tuesday has profoundly undone what they were charged to do in constituting a NACC.

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I want to fix the mess they’ve created.

Four simple steps: First, assurances that expression of opinion and advocacy are encouraged from civil society NACC members.

I’m not trying to jeopardise anybody’s Cabinet-committee stipend. But we have to expand the NACC. Modestly. Five advocacy seats for specific key populations. Not their service providers.

Folks I’ve asked suggest eight: Trans women. Men who have sex with men. Young people born or living with HIV. Sex workers. People who’ve used drugs. People with disabilities. And two Min. Deyalsingh acknowledged: young women; and heterosexual men over 50.

Finally, the NACC staff director has to be a technical expert, not a lifelong government bureaucrat. And government and civil society must co-chair it.

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HIV is not a ribbon thing for me. Half my generation is dead; I live with an anger and loneliness. And 35 years into this epidemic, I’m simply exhausted that authorities’ thinking is so far behind the curve, and so many other Caribbean nations.

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The day before the NACC, PEPFAR (the US’s $5.2B global HIV programme) launched its local Linkages initiative. They’re enrolling and training sex workers, trans women and gay men as service providers to ourselves. So much of what the red-dresses-and-ribbons folks are doing just isn’t making a dent. We test mainly HIV-negative people. Those with HIV aren’t getting into treatment. They remain infectious—why new people can get HIV. The day following the launch, PAHO’s new director—from Dominica—highlighted stigma’s role in preventing LGBT healthcare access.

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You simply can’t end AIDS without jamettes. If Government can’t trust noisy people to be part of nation-building, and can only invite respectability to the table, the NACC will produce minutes, draft plans, collect stipends, and never put itself out of business.

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