A portion of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display in Williamstown last weekend. Dozens of three-foot by six-foot panels, each one dedicated to the memory of a person or people who died of AIDS complications, covered the floor and walls of Chandler Gym.
Largely, the response of Williams students was indifference. The stream of people who entered Chandler to view the Quilt would be better described as a trickle.
All in all, only a tiny fraction of us bothered to make room in our schedules to see the Quilt and actively recall the AIDS crisis.
Perhaps we had more important things to do. After all, AIDS doesn’t affect educated people like us, no one we know is HIV-positive, and with recently made news, there’s not much to worry about anymore. AIDS is essentially a manageable chronic illness which affects a small minority of people, not something which has to do with us. Right?
Well, actually, no. Wrong. According to the World Health Organization, AIDS is the world’s fastest-spreading epidemic.
At the end of 1997 â€” just four months ago â€” more than 30 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, and nearly 12 million people had died from complications of the syndrome. The whole AIDS Quilt, which would be large enough to cover 25 football fields, if it were displayed in its entirety, represents less than one percent of these deaths.
In the US, AIDS affects the African-American and Latino communities disproportionately. Although together these two groups account for only 23 percent of the US population, they represent 52 percent of AIDS cases.
Women are also deeply affected by HIV/AIDS. The epidemic is now spreading six times more quickly among women than among men. The problem is only heightened for women of color; complications from AIDS are currently the leading cause of death among African-American women. (And no, that is not a misprint.)
In case this barrage of statistics brings nothing home for you, consider this: in 1995, there were between 40,000 and 50,000 new HIV transmissions. Half of these occurred in people aged 21 years or younger. Additionally, AIDS complications are the second leading cause of death among Americans between 25 and 44. That means AIDS is infecting and killing young people. That means AIDS affects us. The portion of the Quilt which was displayed here last weekend included vivid reminders of the relevance of AIDS to our lives.
Panels in honor of people who have succumbed to the illness from Western Massachusetts, Eastern New York, and Vermont were among those on display.
Also included were a panel dedicated to all those in the Williams community who have lost their lives, and a panel in remembrance of an alumnus.
The parents of that alumnus have signed the panel each time they have visited it on display. Last week, they wrote, “We’re here at Williams College. It’s your ten-year reunion (1998).” Ten years from now, such a memorial may be written for one of us.
The visit of the Quilt might have been an excellent catalyst for student action as well as student awareness, had we taken full advantage. Not only does the Quilt serve as a memorial to those who have died, it also raises funds for direct services to people living with HIV/AIDS and provides opportunities to volunteer. Each of us might have offered some of our time or money.
We would do well to remember that HIV and AIDS are hardly irrelevant. Not even we are immune: no one has yet been vaccinated; no cure has been found. While drug ‘cocktails’ may offer hope, at a cost of up to $16,000 for each year of treatment, they are accessible only to the rich.
AIDS is not a gay problem, nor an African-American problem, nor a third-world problem any more than it is a problem of the past. AIDS is a human problem, and, like all the troubles of our species, it must be addressed by our generation.
To avoid doing so is to turn our backs â€” not only on those who need our help the most, but on our own futures, as well.