This article is part of the following series: Dispatches from the pandemic
In Turkey, HIV has never been considered a “Turkish” issue, but an issue of Eastern European sex workers and Western queers, both perceived as sexual deviants. However, according to recent data, the number of HIV diagnoses in Turkey has increased by 620% since 2007. Nowhere else has the the incidence of new HIV cases grown so rapidly. Because HIV transmission happens primarily through sexual contact in Turkey, recognizing the epidemic in Turkey also means recognizing the occurrence of extra/premarital and homosexual sex, the existence of which has been keenly denied by the conservative ruling party, JDP. Instead, the State and the Ministry of Health (MoH) adopt strategies of denial and silence to avoid publicly acknowledging the growing HIV epidemic among its viral and queer outcasts. Not only do the officials refuse to utter the word HIV, as though they are afraid of social contagion, but the MoH does not even allow local HIV NGOs to use their logos should they cooperate with the Ministry. The popular attitude is no different. The mainstream media does not mention HIV or give voice to HIV+ people. People openly express on social media that “HIV+ persons should be chopped up or set afire.”  Popular surveys reveal that the majority of the public does not even want to live near HIV+ individuals as they believe HIV is airborne and God’s punishment for sexual deviants. Finally, due to extreme levels of stigma and discrimination, most health professionals refuse to treat HIV+ patients.
What does this all have to do with the coronavirus? Since the emergence of the first Covid-19 cases in Turkey, HIV has entered the mainstream discourse in an unforeseen way. Both because people with chronic diseases have been central to the discussions of the coronavirus, and because antiretroviral medicine used for HIV treatment promised hope to many during the early days of the pandemic, both conservative and progressive politicians, mainstream news channels, scientists, and the public suddenly started talking about HIV (although without mention of the growing HIV epidemic). The recognition of HIV+ people by health providers as “at risk” on national TV is the closest anyone has ever gotten to publicly acknowledging the existence of HIV+ people in Turkey. While lumping all HIV+ people in the same risk category regardless of their viral load and Cd4 numbers is scientifically unsound, it has nevertheless opened up a public space for the discussion of HIV and recognition of HIV+ people. Suddenly, a virus whose name had long been treated as a dirty word became a light of hope, as we call it in Turkish. Rumors that ARV medicine used to suppress replication of HIV in humans might be effective against the coronavirus gave way to a situation where people previously disgusted by the idea of even talking about HIV started to talk about nothing but HIV. For a moment, HIV was no longer a signifier of sin or deviance but of life and potentiality.
In the meantime, the most important question remains: how are HIV+ people in Turkey impacted by the coronavirus pandemic? The entrance of HIV into the public discourse should not be taken as a sign of even a minuscule improvement in the dreadful conditions that HIV+ citizens face in Turkey. Since the pandemic emerged in Turkey, I have been closely following Facebook support groups—which I am also a member of—for HIV+ people, and there has been an unprecedented wave of panic among HIV+ people, who have been exiled from citizenship on viral grounds and consequently denied its privileges of care and protection. Local HIV organizations reported that their phones were ringing off the hook because of countless individuals calling to get medical, psychological, or legal support. Already exiled from citizenship and denied its care and protection, the HIV+ citizens of Turkey have become the forgotten and silenced victims of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though politicians and experts had highlighted HIV/AIDS as a chronic disease with higher risks of infection from the coronavirus, no one has offered HIV+ people any information on how to protect themselves from risk, or what to do should they get infected with coronavirus. The levels of despair among the positive population is as alarming as it is disheartening. Many fear not being able to access their medications because they are afraid to go out. Many have lost their jobs and social security because of the pandemic shut-down. Equally widespread is the fear of being outed should one try to take a leave of absence. This puts many in a dangerous position where they cannot adequately protect themselves from the coronavirus. It appears the most common reason behind the panic of infection is not even COVID-19 per se, but the possibility of being outed to family, friends, and workplace as HIV positive. Due to the fears of discrimination and stigmatization, HIV+ individuals have to choose between being outed or becoming infected with coronavirus and they mostly choose the latter.
Although local HIV NGOs do their best to facilitate patients’ access to treatment and to respond to their concerns, no one can deny the legitimacy of fears shared by HIV+ people. Some have even reported on Facebook about not being able to get their medicine after the stockpiling delirium, as people desperately sought for a cure to the coronavirus. One thing HIV+ people know by experience is that they are disposable, and if HIV medicine were really the cure for COVID-19 and there was a shortage of supply, they would be the last ones to get it.
Socio-epidemiological events like pandemics function as a magnifying glass held on societies. The conditions created by pandemics feed on already-existing social dynamics and make them even more visible. HIV+ (non)citizens of Turkey have been ignored, denied, and discriminated for almost three decades. Hence, as an already marginalized group, they have been rendered extremely vulnerable and precarious under the conditions created by the pandemic. It is in this context that we should interpret the hateful public speech given by Ali Erbaş, the Minister of Religious Affairs, during the first Friday khutbah of the holy month Ramadan, where he claimed homosexuality and extramarital sex give rise to HIV infection and pervert generations. The statements of the Minister that caused LGBTQI+ and HIV+ persons to become the target for endangering morality and public health are neither surprising nor coincidental. The Ministry of Religious Affairs is a state institution and it represents the official views of the Turkish state. This is also supported by President Erdoğan, who immediately came to the Minister’s help and clarified that his opinions represent those of the state and are completely accurate. He even argued that those who criticized the Minister’s hate speech are fascist deviants who attack the sacred values of Islam and Turkish society. It is also not a coincidence that the khutbah took place amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Historically it has been observed that societies respond to pandemics or epidemics by producing scapegoats that are made to assume the burden of the spread of pathologies. With the help of the khutbah, Minister Erbaş sought to emphasize who the real threats are to the public health and public order during these difficult times when social solidarity is needed the most. What is actually surprising in this picture is the fact that the Ministry of Religious Affairs is a long-standing member of the National AIDS Commission that was established in 1996 to control the spread of HIV and prevent discrimination against HIV+ people. Perhaps, given that Turkey’s growing HIV epidemic can be partly attributed to the conservative public health model, the Ministry’s inclusion in the commission should not come as a surprise. After all, HIV in Turkey is not treated as a socio-medical issue but a moral one, just as coronavirus is not handled as a global pandemic but a matter of economic and political calculation.
To conclude, it appears that various officials of the Turkish state found ways to benefit from the novel coronavirus. However, there is nothing novel about how disaster capitalism works though. While some turn the pandemic into a lucrative business, others seem to take advantage of it for the purposes of social engineering. It is clear Covid-19 will irreversibly change how HIV is addressed in Turkey. Notwithstanding, the entrance of HIV into the mainstream discourse does not seem to promise any positive development in the short run for HIV+ people.
Tankut Atuk is a PhD candidate in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies & Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His dissertation project looks at the socio-political dimensions of the world’s fastest growing HIV epidemic in Turkey. He specifically asks, “In what ways is the conservative public health model producing the HIV epidemic and its outcasts in Turkey? And, What kinds of cooperation/coercion do the HIV epidemic and the contagious nature of conservatism make possible among the Turkish State, civil society, and the pharmaceutical industry? He tries to answer these questions through what he calls “viral ethnography.”
 THSK. (2017). Public Health Agency of Turkey Infectious Diseases Chapter December 2017 Data (Türkiye Halk Sagligi Kurumu (THSK) Bulaşıcı Hastalıklar Daire Başkanlığı Cinsel Yolla Bulaşan Enfeksiyonlar Birimi Aralık 2017 Verileri).
- Interdisciplinary Efforts to Oppose a Punitive Perinatal Substance Use Law in North Carolina
- Thinking Sex in Times of Corona: A Conversation
- Interpreting Sexuality: Intellectually Disabled People and “Special” Educators in India
- Emergency Alerts for COVID-19 in South Korea
- From HIV to COVID19: Anthropology, urgency, and the politics of engagement