Improving LGBT Health Education in South Africa: Addressing the Gap

I first became interested in the topic of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health care and health education while working as a country lead for the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). During my time there I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and understand their community and health care system a bit better, with an emphasis on their HIV/AIDS epidemic. This post focuses on the LGBT history in South Africa, recent developments, addressing that there is a gap between homophobia and non-judgmental care, and the importance of health care workers understanding LGBT health education.

More and more countries around the world are opening their arms to welcome and embrace LGBT pride. South Africa has one of the world’s more progressive constitutions which legally protects LGBT people from discrimination, although current research indicates that they continue to face discrimination and homophobia in many different facets of life. The most recent milestone occurred in 2006 when the country passed a law to recognize same-sex marriages. Nevertheless, LGBT South Africans particularly those outside of the major cities, continue to face some challenges including conservative attitudes, violence, and high rates of disease. As the country continues to grow there seems to be an increase in LGBT representation (with approximately 4,900,000 people identifying as LGBT) whether it is through activism, tourism, the media and society or support from religious groups. So, what about LGBT health education? Continue reading “Improving LGBT Health Education in South Africa: Addressing the Gap”

Policy on #HIV related travel restrictions adopted by @WFPHA_FMASP at #WCPH2017 now posted

After APHA adopted its permanent policy statement on HIV-related immigration restrictions that we submitted at last year’s Annual Meeting, the IH Section worked with APHA’s WFPHA liaison, Dr. Deborah Klein-Walker, to submit a corresponding policy proposal on behalf of APHA to the World Federation of Public Health Associations, which held its 15th World Congress on Public Health this month in Melbourne, Australia. The proposal was accepted and passed by the WFPHA Policy Committee at the meeting, and has now been posted the website (PDF). The text of the policy (excluding references) is below.

Scientific evidence and treatment needed to combat the spread of HIV – not ineffective travel bans

Submitted by the American Public Health Association
(Contact person D. Walker)

Introduction
HIV-related restrictions against entry, stay, and residence remain common around the world. Various countries have policies that mandate HIV testing of all or certain groups of foreign nationals as a condition of obtaining a visa for employment. These policies have no basis in science and violate migrant workers’ human rights to confidentiality and informed consent to testing, exposing them to exploitation by their employers. According to UNAIDS, 35 countries currently have official HIV-related travel restrictions. Furthermore, HIV-related travel restrictions against foreign nationals have been shown by international treaty bodies, international legal scholars, and human rights organizations to constitute discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and/or country of origin.

Scope and Purpose
Restrictions on travel, immigration, or residence related to HIV status are a violation of the principles of nondiscrimination and equal treatment in all international human rights laws, treaties, and agreements. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to equal protection under the law, free from discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status, and the UN Commission on Human Rights has determined that this includes discrimination based on health status, including HIV infection. According to the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while international human rights law allows governments to restrict rights in cases of emergency or serious public concern, the restrictions must be the minimum necessary to effectively address the concern – and HIV-related travel restrictions have been overwhelmingly ruled as both overly intrusive and ineffective public health policy. Within such restrictions, compulsory HIV testing is a serious violation of numerous human rights principles, including the right to bodily integrity and dignity. The accompanying deportation and/or loss of employment and residency status of HIV-infected migrants that frequently accompanies such testing violates the rights of PLWHA to privacy, work, and appropriate medical care. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has specifically stated that neither HIV tests nor private HIV-related personal information should be required of employees or job applicants.

Despite this robust evidence base, according to UNAIDS, 35 countries currently have official HIV-related travel restrictions openly acknowledged and enforced by the government. These restrictions vary from outright entry bans, which bar PLWHA from entering the country, to restrictions on stays longer than a specified period of time or to obtain employment visas or residency status. Others have inconsistent policies and/or intentionally misrepresent their policies with HIV-related restrictions. Such policies and practices, and the number of migrants impacted by them, are difficult to track because of differing or ambiguous definitions and a lack of data. Some of the most restrictive policies subject immigrants to mandatory HIV testing, either when applying for residency or for an employment visa, which is frequently required by states for legal residency.

The two primary justifications provided by governments for mandatory HIV tests for migrant workers and other HIV-related travel restrictions are to protect public health and reduce the cost burden on the country’s healthcare system imposed by providing HIV care services to foreign nationals. While countries have the right to employ measures to protect their populations from communicable diseases of public health concern, HIV is not transmitted by casual contact, meaning there is no scientific basis for attempting to control its spread via immigration policies. Furthermore, countries that do not have HIV-related travel restrictions have not reported any negative public health consequences compared to those that do, and recent analysis suggests that even migration from countries with generalized HIV epidemics does not pose a public health risk to destination countries.

In fact, immigration policies banning or restricting entry or employment based on HIV status often have the opposite effect of their protective intention, causing direct harm to the health of both of immigrants and citizens. They marginalize PLWHA, regularly discourage people from accessing HIV testing and treatment, and reinforce stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes against PLWHA in the general population. Regulations requiring HIV tests of immigrants can promote the idea that foreigners are dangerous to the national population and a public health risk, as well as creating a false sense of security by reinforcing the notion that only migrants are at risk for infection. Additionally, such attitudes can adversely impact the host country’s own HIV epidemic, as citizens who are unaware of their HIV-positive status, underestimating their own HIV risk and avoiding testing due to stigmatization, are more likely to transmit the virus to others, driving up infection rates.

State-enforced HIV screening of migrants costs far more than it saves in treatment costs. Screening travelers and migrants for HIV is impractical and expensive.[5][13][19] Labor migrants (both regular and undocumented) bring significant economic benefits to their host countries, in addition to themselves, and this cost-benefit balance remains even when migrants are HIV-positive and rely on the host country’s health care system for treatment and support.

Fields of Application:

  • National public health associations and their members
  • Human rights and HIV advocacy groups
  • UNAIDS
  • The World Federation of Public Health Associations

Action Steps:

The WFPHA joins with UNAIDS, the World Health Assembly, and other HIV and human rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ILO) to call on all countries that still maintain and/or enforce HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay, or residence to eliminate such restrictions, ensuring that all HIV testing is confidential and voluntary and that counseling and medical care be available to all PLWHA within its borders, including migrants and foreign nationals.

The WFPHA affirms the following principles:

  • All people have the right to confidential and voluntary HIV testing and counseling.
  • Persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) have the right to privacy, to work, and to appropriate medical care.
  • All HIV-related travel and immigration restrictions currently in place should be removed.
  • Agencies and businesses who employ foreign nationals should not use HIV tests as a means to discriminate against potential employees.
  • Governments should provide HIV prevention and treatment services that are equally accessible to citizens and foreign nationals.
  • Migrant workers should have access to culturally appropriate HIV prevention and care programs in languages that they can understand.

The WFPHA recommends that:

  1. Public health associations in every country should:
    1. Develop policies opposing HIV-related travel restrictions;
    2. Document and/or support human rights and HIV advocacy groups in documenting immigration policies that explicitly discriminate, or allow employers to discriminate, against migrants based on HIV status;
    3. Document and/or support human rights and HIV advocacy groups in documenting any HIV testing practices that are not voluntary or confidential;
    4. Inform their members and the public that HIV-related travel restrictions and compulsory HIV testing of foreign nationals is a violation of human rights and does not protect public health or reduce health care costs; and
    5. Advocate for the removal of any and all HIV-related travel restrictions enforced or condoned by their country governments.
  2. UNAIDS should take steps to ensure that its protocols to research and investigate countries’ HIV-related travel restrictions are sufficiently thorough by monitoring and documenting any reported instances of HIV-related discrimination targeting immigrants, particularly when presented with evidence demonstrating that recognition of a country’s removal of HIV-related travel restrictions is unwarranted, in order to ensure that governments are not able to misrepresent their policies in order to gain undeserved recognition for supporting human rights with regard to HIV/AIDS.

WFPHA supports the removal of all HIV-related travel restrictions and travel related mandatory testing.

@MSF Video for World #AIDS Day: People with #HIV still face major hurdles

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


Another year and another December mark the passage of another World AIDS Day. This has been an exciting year for HIV research and policy, with the WHO updating guidelines to recommend that anyone diagnosed with HIV get on ARVs, PrEP gaining traction in the US (even in my own Lone Star State!) and approval in France, new optimism in the effort to development a vaccine, and talk of ending AIDS by 2030. Aw, yeah.

Alas, we are not there yet – and World AIDS Day is an important day to remember that. While many countries have turned the tide of their HIV epidemics, it is getting worse in several others and, in South Korea’s case, presents the potential for a fast-approaching crisis. MSF is always a good resource for bringing optimists back to reality. In this video, they remind us that in order to keep up the progress we have made against AIDS by treating HIV, we need to make sure that those who are infected stay in care – which will take sustained efforts in treatment, policy, and funding.

It’s (UN) official: South Korea’s mandatory HIV testing for foreigners is racial discrimination

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


South Korea has come under fire in recent years for its treatment of immigrants, migrant workers, and non-ethnic Koreans (and even their own working-class people). Last fall, Bitter Harvest, Amnesty International’s report on the country’s treatment of agricultural migrant laborers highlighted how Southeast Asian migrants went unpaid, were subjected to harsh treatment and squalid living conditions, and were either deprived of medical care or forced to pay for their own care out of pocket (from their own meager wages). In some cases, the migrants were forced to take (and pay for) an HIV test, with employers requiring a negative test result.

In the case of migrant workers, this is clearly illegal – currently, the only visa category for which the South Korean government requires an HIV test is E-2 (native-speaking English teachers from the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). However, even this requirement – first implemented in 2007 in response to a racially-fueled moral panic – has been determined to be discriminatory and racially motivated, according to a ruling from the UN’s Committee to End all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) handed down last week. The ruling, issued in response to a case filed by a New Zealand woman who lost her job in 2009 after refusing to take an HIV test to renew her contract – has been long awaited by the expat ESL community in Korea. Whether the Korean government will remove the requirement remains to be seen.

The case was brought to CERD by Benjamin Wagner, an international human rights attorney who co-authored a legal paper on the issue of South Korea’s use of HIV testing as a proxy for racial discrimination with Matt van Volkenburg. The paper (PDF) provides an excellent background on the history, political and cultural climate, and xenophobic advocacy efforts that led to the implementation of the testing requirement, as well as how the requirement is a clear example of South Korea shirking its international human rights obligations:

The HIV and drug test requirements for foreign teachers were first established as emergency measures in 2007 by the Ministry of Justice
(“MOJ”), which claimed they were necessary in order to “ease the anxiety of the citizens.” Part II of this Article examines the background and
context of the implementation of these requirements and argues that they were introduced during a period of media hysteria and moral panic…a civil society group called the “Citizens’ Group for Upright English Education”…succeeded in courting public opinion against foreign English teachers by contributing to highly sensationalized media reportage replete with lurid tales of perversion, sex crimes, drug use and AIDS. This group was also successfully able to influence national policy by petitioning the government for measures against foreign teachers, including mandatory HIV and drug tests.

Part III examines the ROK’s international commitments to eliminate discrimination and stigma based on actual or presumed HIV status and
examines how and why the ROK has failed to honor these commitments.

Korea’s HIV restrictions for foreign teachers are among the most extreme form of HIV restrictions in the world…Of the forty-nine countries in the world that continue to have some form of HIV-related restrictions in place for foreigners only about six have restrictions so extreme as requiring in-country testing for foreign workers that must be repeated on a regular basis, and nowhere are teachers subject to such restrictions. Indeed, the ROK’s extreme position toward its foreign teacher population has attracted the attention of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who has urged the ROK to eliminate its HIV restrictions on foreign teachers.

Obviously, any foreigner who tests positive for HIV is immediately detained and deported; in 2008, the Korean CDC reported that it had deported 521 out of 647 HIV-positive foreigners. Non-nationals of Korean ethnicity have been able to successfully challenge such deportations, but the Korean judicial system explicitly differentiates between the legal rights of citizens versus foreign nationals.

Interestingly, South Korea has given CERD “the same authority as domestic law” regarding foreign nationals; however, this means next to nothing as Wagner explained in a different piece last week:

Professor Kyong-Whan Ahn…remarked that the constitutional analysis used by Korean courts to determine whether an incidence of discrimination has occurred is relatively underdeveloped. The method relied upon by courts is the “reasonableness test”. But, Ahn complains, decisions are all too often “a foregone conclusion” with little analysis or scrutiny.

[T]he status of the CERD is unique in that “it has the same authority of domestic law and does not necessitate additional legislation,” as the Republic of Korea has made clear to the Committee on several occasions. Nevertheless, the Committee has responded, “although the Convention forms part of the domestic law and is directly applicable in the courts of [South Korea], there are no court decisions which contain references to or confirm the direct applicability of its provisions.” The Committee has pointed out to the government that the situation may be the result of “a lack of awareness of the availability of legal remedies” and has recommended “information campaigns and education programmes on the Convention and its provisions.” Unfortunately, however, the treaty remains relatively unknown in Korea and neither the government nor the courts have done enough to change that.

van Volkenburg, who has been covering this issue (and its origins) since it all began in 2005 at the long-running Korean expat blog Gusts of Popular Feeling, has a great summary of the ruling and its implications (as well as the best collection of links to the news coverage of the ruling):

The summary makes public the justification the UMOE offered for the tests – something that many people taking these tests have known for years, but never admitted by the government:
[D]uring arbitration proceedings, L.G.’s employers, the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education (UMOE), said that HIV/AIDS tests were viewed as a means to check the values and morality of foreign English teachers.

One of the Committee’s recommendations isn’t very surprising:

The Committee recommends that the State party grant the petitioner adequate compensation for the moral and material damages caused by the above-mentioned violations of the Convention, including compensation for the lost wages during the one year she was prevented from working.

It continues with much more sweeping recommendations, however:

It also recommends that the State Party takes the appropriate means to review regulations and policies enacted at the State or local level related to employment of foreigners and abolish, both in law and practice, any piece of legislation, regulation, policy or measure which has the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination. The Committee recommends the State party to counter any manifestations of xenophobia, through stereotyping or stigmatizing, of foreigners by public officials, the media and the public at large, including, as appropriate, public campaigns, official statements and codes of conduct for politicians and the media. The State party is also requested to give wide publicity to the Committee’s Opinion, including among prosecutors and judicial bodies, and to translate it into the official language of the State party.

This doesn’t just refer to English teachers, but to regulations for all foreign workers. And as I’ve covered here, the references to the conduct of the media and politicians is very pertinent, considering the ‘Citizens Group for Upright English Education’ (also known as Anti English Spectrum) worked closely with the media and had access to politicians when pushing for the creation of the HIV testing policy (among others) in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how the Korean government will respond to the CERD’s ruling – whether it will in fact change the law in accordance with its treaty obligations. Based on South Korea’s history of human rights protections, it does not look promising. Even when human rights principles are codified into law, employers (and often police officers) who violate workers’ legal rights do so with widespread impunity and are rarely prosecuted or held accountable – as demonstrated by the cases of the migrant workers in Bitter Harvest and the workers enslaved on salt farms on the islands of Jeollanam-do. The admission that HIV tests were seen as a way to “check the values and morality” of visa applicants is a slap in the face – doubly so considering that only foreigners are required to have “upright values” in order to get jobs.

Nonetheless, the CERD ruling is a major victory – a solid foundation on which to pressure the South Korean government, which has demonstrated that it wants to be taken seriously in the international community.

Screwing Global Health for the Sake of Spying

Two weeks ago, my husband and I visited a couple that we knew from university that I hadn’t seen since before we left for Korea in 2012. The wife actually got her Master’s in international development and worked in DC for a few years after graduating, but returned to Texas with a general distaste for the development industry. “I always wanted to work for USAID,” she told me, “until I figured out that they were just a tool of US foreign policy. I felt kind of betrayed – I thought they just helped people!”

usaid branded aid
Photo credit: USAID.

My friend’s complaint is common among development professionals. Many in the industry believe that US foreign assistance should come without political strings attached to it, and they object to practices such as obvious branding of foreign aid supplies and using aid as a tool to strong-arm other countries into going along with American foreign policy moves. Personally, I get that foreign aid is one of many tools in a country’s foreign policy toolkit – it may not be ideal, but it’s at least logical.

What’s not logical to me, however, is the use of aid – specifically, of global health interventions – as a cover for intelligence operations.

Development types will remember the uproar over the CIA’s use of a vaccination drive as a cover for collecting DNA in a (failed) effort to locate Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. (Widely reported as a polio vaccination drive, the CIA scheme actually used hepatitis B vaccine.) Pundits predicted – correctly – that it would set polio eradication efforts back and put aid workers in danger. Luckily for us, the CIA has now promised not to do it again – which is lovely, but a shame that it took three years for them to get around to doing.

Now it would seem that USAID is trying its hand at endangering global health efforts through half-baked intelligence schemes. Last week, the AP released its major investigative journalism report on a USAID operation that used young and inexperienced Latin American activists to try to stir up dissent in Cuban civil society. Aside from major issues such as the fact that the Latin American youths were poorly trained (and paid!) and not prepared for the risks they faced (particularly when USAID’s management of the scheme was utterly amateur), or the fact that this really is not USAID’s job, development professionals have been irate that yet another government covert operation has jeopardized global health – in this case, HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, in response to the revelation that one of the operatives used an HIV workshop to “recruit promising individuals”:

The choice of a U.S.-sponsored HIV workshop in Cuba is an interesting one, since Cuba’s HIV infection rate is one of the lowest in the world, and one-sixth that of the U.S. But it appears the disease was not necessarily the focus of the workshop, which was attended by 60 people. Fernando Murillo, after returning from Cuba, put together a report detailing his activities for Creative Associates, the USAID contractor hired to work against Cuba’s government. His only mention of HIV says it was “the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme,” meaning anti-government organizing.

In a press release, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) blasted the program. “As co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover,” she said. “This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world.”

Frankly, I am scratching my head at why USAID thought that this kind of operation, or the “Cuban Twitter” called Zunzuneo that was uncovered earlier this year, was a good idea. Perhaps they are fighting to stay relevant in an era of US global health policy when the State Department and the White House are also jockying for position, but it’s no excuse. Jeopardizing global health programs, particularly programs that target HIV/AIDS – which is universally acknowledged as at the top of the global health agenda – is just a way to shoot yourself in the foot. In the end, they only lose credibility – and USAID, as a development agency, should understand what that can cost. They should know better.