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.
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