Apr 27 2011
The following post is an excerpt from one part of a yearlong series by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation marking the 30th year of AIDS. We’re featuring the perspective of our own Bob Haas, president of the Levi Strauss Foundation and chairman emeritus of Levi Strauss & Co. Please click here to see the complete article, which also features responses by David Furnish, chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
We’ve learned a lot in 30 years. What do we have yet to learn?
Haas: HIV/AIDS presents us with two interrelated issues: a medical epidemic and the associated scourge of stigma and discrimination. To make matters worse, the brunt of this stigma and discrimination impacts women, the poor, drug users, prisoners and people who are gay or transgender.
Other viruses and plagues caused waves of fear and ostracism because they were extremely contagious and deadly. Nevertheless, people who died due to the plague or tuberculosis have been regarded as ‘innocent victims.’ Rarely is this pronouncement made of people living with HIV/AIDS. Why is this? Because unlike other deadly diseases – spread through the air or casual contact – becoming infected with HIV requires an action – such as sex or venous injection – that is freighted with the baggage of social taboo and moral judgment.
Consequently, with HIV/AIDS we need to go beyond addressing a medical condition. We must stand up in the face of hostile social pressures and cultural norms and take vigorous action to protect the human rights of marginalized groups who bear the brunt of this epidemic—especially gay men, sex workers and people who use drugs.
What was your deciding moment, when HIV/AIDS became an important issue in your life?
Haas: One day in 1982, at the close of an Executive Management team meeting at Levi Strauss & Co., a colleague pulled me aside and said, “Bob, we have a problem. Some of our employees want to pass out leaflets in our Atrium warning other employees about an unknown but potentially deadly disease. The problem is that this disease seems to affect gay men. The employees fear that if they pass out these leaflets, they will be stigmatized because other employees will assume they are gay. What should we do?” We agreed that we should not only grant permission to the employees but join them in distributing the information.
The next day, during the lunch hour, I joined other members of our management team in passing out the leaflets. Because of our presence, more employees than usual stopped to take and read the handouts. Importantly, our presence and support reassured the employees who were distributing the leaflets, and to my knowledge there were no consequences from their involvement. Little did we know that our actions comprised the first corporate response to this inchoate epidemic.
Over the years, four institutional values at Levi Strauss & Co. – originality, empathy, integrity and courage – have served as the guiding light for our response to HIV/AIDS. Driven by these values, we have sought to be bold and honest, extended compassion and support to those who bear the brunt of stigma and supported proven prevention methods (including access to sterile syringes), even in the face of controversy.
With ever-increasing public health issues to contend with, why should anyone still prioritize HIV/AIDS?
Haas: Because HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects society’s most marginalized groups, at Levi Strauss & Co. we feel an obligation to continually to push the limits of the response.
That is why the company has made a commitment, through the Clinton Global Initiative, to provide comprehensive prevention, treatment and care to all employees, retirees and dependents – a workforce of over 11,000 that spans 45 countries. We hope other companies will step up and provide treatment to their employees. Along the way, we seek to help ‘change the game’ around the provision of insurance benefits – perhaps one of the final frontiers in the global battle against AIDS. Only when corporations, who are key buyers of insurance, insist on coverage can we hope to tip the balance.
Likewise, private foundations are uniquely positioned to address pressing and politically sensitive issues that cut against the mainstream, especially given the nexus between HIV/AIDS, sexuality and drug use. From the onset of the epidemic, foundations have been responsible for key advances in HIV/AIDS policies and program development. They have enabled critical voices speaking on behalf of highly marginalized groups to be heard. They have supported the creation of organizations and programs that governments and businesses were not willing to underwrite.
Let’s face it: HIV/AIDS will be around us for decades to come, so our work is far from finished.
What keeps you up at night?
Haas: The spread of new infections continues to outpace the extension of treatment to those in need: for every two people who start treatment around the globe, another five are newly infected.
Three decades into the epidemic, what gives you hope?
Haas: HIV/AIDS is not just a medical condition that can be solved by resourceful scientists and compassionate caregivers. As Nelson Mandela reminds us: “AIDS is no longer a disease. It is a human rights issue.” At the end of the day, to end the epidemic we must find a cure for the disease and, at the same time, make our communities more equitable and compassionate.
Posted By: Cory Warren, Editor, LS&Co. Unzipped
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