By Sam Bojarski
Since the early 1980s, Haitians in the United States have dealt with the HIV-AIDS stigma. A history series recently released by Netflix is the latest reminder that this stigma hasn’t gone away.
Haitian-Americans have reacted with outrage on social media, in response to a particular segment in the ninth episode of the “History 101” documentary series, entitled “AIDS.” Netflix has since agreed to remove the episode, in response to concerns raised by the Haitian community. The segment traces the virus’s spread from Africa to Haiti during the 1960s, then appears to put Haiti at the center of an ensuing global outbreak.
“By 1980 up to 300,000 people worldwide are likely infected,” the video’s narrator says, as red arrows jump from Haiti to the United States and numerous other regions of the world.
The “History 101” series first premiered on Netflix in May and was produced by ITN Productions, the television production arm of UK news producer ITN. Members of the Haitian community have called for Netflix and the producers to remove the video and issue an apology.
ITN Productions has not responded to an email from the Haitian Times requesting comment. A Netflix spokesperson responded to a request for comment on June 6.
“We have seen the concerns raised and, together with the series creators, have decided to remove the episode while we review the issues involved,” the spokesperson told the Haitian Times in an email.
“The AMHE (Haitian Doctor’s Association) fought tooth and nail in protests and with science to disprove the narrative that Haitans were a high risk group. The stigma and discrimination inflicted upon the Haitian community was incalculable. This is outrageous! We will not be disrespected a second time,” wrote one Instagram user, Karen Andre.
The Netflix documentary series was released at a time when COVID-19 is also being stigmatized in the Haitian community, in a way that recalls the AIDS pandemic.
Dr. Jean-Claude Compas, a retired physician who resides in Queens, helped organize a demonstration in 1990, when more than 150,000 Haitians in New York City marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest a ban on blood donations from people of Haitian origin. Compas has also chaired the Haitian Coalition on AIDS.
“The stigma has been very, very tremendous,” said Dr. Compas, particularly before current HIV treatments came out. “You still have a group of people, in their 30s and 40s, who still remember the stigma of (other people) saying that ‘you are Haitian and that you have AIDS,’ and so on,” he added.
Karen Andre, an attorney and political strategist who resides in Florida, said Haitian children in schools faced some of the worst trauma. “Not only were they being called boat people, but they were being called AIDS carriers. “This was the climate we have dealt with due to this horrible stigma that was placed on us,” she told the Haitian Times.
The HIV-AIDS stigma for Haitians in the U.S. started in 1983, when the disease was first being identified. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced four groups of people most at-risk for the disease: intravenous drug users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and Haitians. About 20 Haitian cases in Miami had been recommended to the CDC for treatment, and after the “high-risk” designation, the media followed with sensationalized headlines.
Haitians were removed from the CDC’s list of at-risk groups two years later. But the damage was done, and since then, Haitians have been banned from giving blood and victimized in popular culture for being alleged carriers of HIV-AIDS. President Donald Trump also revived this stigma in 2017, when he stated that Haitians “all have AIDS.”
In addition to the “History 101” episode reviving decades-old stigma, it doesn’t comply with the facts, according to Compas.
The first case of AIDS in Haiti was reported to the medical community in 1981.
“Now if the virus was there in Haiti since 1960, ‘61, ‘62, ‘63, up to 1980, we should have a lot more cases in Haiti than what we had. Because when the virus started in Haiti in the ‘80s, we had very few cases. And we saw the spread of the disease throughout the country,” said Compas, who reviewed the “History 101” video clip.
According to a paper co-authored by Jean-William Pape, founder of the GHESKIO network of health clinics that have treated HIV-AIDS in Haiti since the early 1980s, the epidemic’s initial concentration among the urban, male population suggests its origins in sex tourism.
Tourists from America frequented Port-au-Prince during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, although much of this tourism ended after the “high-risk” designation.
“At the time, there was a huge gay population that used to come for holidays in Haiti,” Compas said.
Retrospective testing of Haitian blood samples from the 1970s failed to find a single case of HIV, and thousands of autopsies from skilled clinicians did not identify an AIDS-defining illness in Haiti until 1978, according to the 2008 paper that Pape co-authored, which explored the epidemiology of AIDS in Haiti.
In the early 1980s, Haiti had a small number of AIDS cases, indicating that the virus more than likely had not been present in the country as far back as the 1960s. According to a GHESKIO paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1983, just 61 cases of AIDS were diagnosed retrospectively in Haiti from 1979-1982. The paper’s authors, which included Pape, indicated their belief that AIDS likely did not exist in Haiti before 1978.
According to the AIDS Institute, a nonprofit that promotes public policy research, advocacy and education, the HIV virus has existed in the U.S. since at least the mid-to-late 1970s. Some researchers say the first U.S. death due to AIDS occurred as early as 1969.
Most scientists believe that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, originated in Africa and likely spread from chimpanzees to humans sometime before 1931. Researchers found the earliest case in the blood sample of a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As of 2019, nearly 40 million people throughout the world were living with HIV.
“It’s unconscionably wrong that they would be so reckless and that Netflix would greenlight this,” Andre said, in regard to the “AIDS” video tying the outbreak to Haiti.
While Dr. Compas conceded that a lot of Haitians were traveling to the Congo to work as teachers during the 1960s, the narrative published by the “History 101” video does not make sense.
“They are saying that they brought back the disease (to) Haiti and the disease spread all over the world, basically from there. All over Latin America, all over Trinidad and so on and so forth. Me, when I take the sequence of events, the way things have evolved, it doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Compas said.