Elton John: Science can stop Aids but to end the plague we need love

The Aids epidemic is fuelled by stigma, hate, ignorance and indifference

Share

Here's a story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, who got mixed up in drugs and drink. He took chances with unprotected sex, and he was at very high risk of contracting HIV. He hit rock bottom, his life was a mess.

He should have died, to be honest, and he almost did. But then, something amazing happened. People showed him compassion and love, respect and understanding. He turned his life around. He has a wonderful life, a loving partner, and a beautiful son and he's been sober for 22 years.

By all rights, I shouldn't be here. I should be dead, six feet under, in a wooden box. I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s, just like Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson and many friends and loved ones.

Every day, I wonder: how did I survive? I don't know the answer, but I do know that the message that saved my life is the message that can save millions of lives if we put it into practice: everyone deserves compassion and dignity and everyone deserves love. The Aids disease is caused by a virus, but the Aids epidemic is not. It is fuelled by stigma, hate, misinformation, ignorance and indifference.

There's much talk now about the end of Aids and rightly so. We can end Aids; thanks to research and advocacy, we have life-saving treatment and prevention. But that's not good enough. It's just not good enough to beat this disease once and for all. We need more than medicine and we need more than money – we also need love.

Over three decades of this epidemic we've seen how human beings react when people around them become HIV-positive. Some look at the sick and search for reasons to blame them. They live immoral lives so they deserve to be sick and to die, they've brought it on themselves. And others look at the sick and think of reasons to love them. You're ill? I'll be ill one day, too. You're dying? There will come a time when I am also dying. How can I help you? How can I love you?

After 31 years and 30 million people gone, we have seen both responses. Hate in Uganda, stigma in Ukraine, indifference in America. It makes me sick, all of this fear, ignorance and hate. But we've also seen love. We've seen monks working with drug addicts in Thailand, social workers helping HIV-positive prisoners, corporations putting lives ahead of profits or gay men living with Aids in San Francisco joining hands with heterosexual women living with Aids in Botswana.

More than eight million people are now on treatment and we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon. But it's going to take a hell of a lot more compassion to get us there. How can compassion get us to our destination? We're not going to end new infections among injection drug users by locking them up or leaving them to die of addiction or Aids; that just spreads the disease and the suffering. We need to give them love, support, clean needles, and treatment. We're not going to curb new infections among men who have sex with men in Africa by stoning gay men and passing laws against homosexuality. To stop the epidemic in South Africa tell those living with HIV to be proud that they know their status: that's what the government there is beginning to do, and it's working.

To end the epidemic in America show compassion to those who can't afford treatment, the HIV-positive people in Washington DC, most of whom are poor and black and forgotten, even though they live in the capital of the richest nation on earth. America has shown so much love for those living with HIV in the developing world. If it wanted to end new infections at home it could do so in a heartbeat.

All it takes is a bit more funding, and a bit more understanding. Maybe you think I'm hopelessly naïve or off my rocker. I know we need more than love and compassion. We need prevention programmes to be funded. We need treatment programmes to be expanded and we need a vaccine to be discovered. But even if we had all that – even if we had a vaccine – it wouldn't be enough. A vaccine won't end stigma in Eastern Europe nor homophobia in Uganda. A vaccine won't end rapes in South Africa and it won't help poor people who can't afford treatment in Asia. A vaccine won't change laws in America that criminalise those with HIV.

Science can stop the disease, but science alone can't end the plague. We now have miraculous treatments that double as prevention. But we can't get those living with HIV on treatment if they're afraid to disclose their status because of stigma or homophobia.

I pray that one day we will have a vaccine but we won't be able to get it to all those in need without the compassion of governments. Millions of people feel ashamed because of their HIV-positive status, because of their sexuality, because of their poverty. Shame and stigma prevent them from getting help, from getting treatment, from protecting themselves in the first place. I've felt that shame before. It almost killed me and it's killing people all around the world, right now. We have to replace the shame with love, the stigma with compassion. That is how we will end this plague.

Love is the most powerful force in the world and I know that from experience. During the darkest days of my recovery from addiction, I was shown extraordinary compassion by people I didn't even know. Their love changed my life. It saved my life. The gift of love from strangers, from a community of people who believe in you and support you, is one of the most remarkable gifts you could ever receive.

Everyone deserves it. Not nearly enough people receive it. But we can do something about that and when we do, we will wake up from this 30-year nightmare into a brand new day.

This is an edited version of the keynote address given by Elton John to the 2012 International Aids Conference in Washington DC

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin. Was Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup unfairly?  

Fifa arrests: Is it the final whistle for corruption in world football?

Mary Dejevsky
Alternative futures build into a chronicle of chance  

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Winner Jenny Erpenbeck’s historical novel grips and dazzles

Boyd Tonkin
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith