HIV-positive students face opposition to anonymous college enrollment

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/7 19:08:39

Even medical majors say they don’t want HIV-positive roommates

The enrollment of 15 HIV-positive students into colleges has caused public panic.

Though the government has tried to combat HIV taboo, prejudice is still widespread.

Experts say the students will live lives no different from other college students.

HIV-positive students are worried being excluded on campus. Photo: IC

The students at the Red Ribbon School, which was China's first special school for HIV-positive children when it opened in 2005, have been in the spotlight again recently after it was revealed that 15 of them will be attending college this year.

The school has been applauded for safeguarding HIV-positive children's rights, fighting against discrimination and offering its students education opportunities.

But this applause turned sour after it was revealed that they would not only be studying side-by-side with other students, but that their identities would also be concealed to avoid discrimination.

This move is in line with WHO and UNAIDS recommendations which say that people living with HIV have the right to privacy.

Guo Xiaoping, founder and principal of the school in North China's Shanxi Province, told the Global Times that some students have already officially enrolled in smoothly with their secrets intact while others are still waiting to start their college lives.

China's First Lady Peng Liyuan has visited the Red Ribbon School several times.

Since she went there in 2011 and dined side-by-side with students in the canteen, the school has received local government funding and many charitable donations.

In June 2014, Peng wrote a letter to the students, encouraging them to take the senior high school entrance examination and to aim high in education. This letter echoes official policy on people with HIV, as the government has been working to end discrimination against them.

But it seems that her and the government's work is not yet over, with many students telling surveys that they cannot accept studying with HIV-positive classmates without knowing who is carrying the virus as they think it is dangerous. 

"The opposition is deafening. The public reaction shows that people really lack knowledge about HIV and this group of people," said Xiaoqiang, who is in charge of the HIV/AIDS NGO Rongai Tiankong in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

Controversial enrollment

These have been testing times for Guo. His Sina Weibo was a litany of anxious messages in the run up to the all-important college entrance exams. But in late August, he wrote that "there is good news every day!"

"By now, 15 of them have been recruited by different colleges!" Guo wrote on Weibo on August 18, expressing gratitude to those "who helped to make this all happen to these children."

But this good news turned into negative headlines and a backlash after Guo revealed that the students' "identities will be concealed." The angry voices have been so loud that Guo has almost lost his own voice, telling the Global Times that he does not "want to talk about this thing right now."

Panic and fear have dominated the public discourse. Under an article titled "Would you accept AIDS patients as roommates and without knowing it?" one netizen wrote that this is "a question of life and death."

On Sina Weibo, the most-liked post on this topic read "Sorry, maybe I'm not kind enough - I cannot accept roommates infected with AIDS."

Among these fearful commenters were even a few medical students, with one saying that they "don't discriminate against [people living with HIV] but fear [them]."

"The first half of the news is cheering. After all, that these students can go to college reflects the progress our society has made. But 'concealing their identity' is infuriating. It is irresponsible and unfair to keep other students from knowing the truth," a netizen named Liuliuhenmang exclaimed online.

This condemnation was not universal however, with some suggesting solutions ranging from the students gradually revealing their identity to people close to them or the establishment of separate dormitories.

Some shared their own experiences with HIV-positive people to put people's minds at rest.

"I lived with an HIV-positive patient for a long time, without being infected. If my roommate is an HIV-positive patient, I think I'm capable of taking care of him," noted netizen Bangdi on WeChat, adding that "HIV does not mean death."

According to Xiaoqiang, the 15 students will be able to go about their daily lives in just the same way as students not living with HIV, but will still have to receive regular health checks and treatment.

"Except maybe they need to be more careful not to get hurt or break any bones, because it is very complicated for them to receive operations," said Xiaoqiang.

"If they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, they are obliged to tell them about their disease," he said, adding this is a legal obligation, and those who fail to tell others and cause infections will bear criminal responsibilities.


Great pressure

Missing in this discussion were the actual students, many of whom are under great emotional and financial pressure.

Cuicui, one of the 15, supports herself by selling products on WeChat. Her mother died in childbirth and her father committed suicide last year. She is now saving money to buy a laptop to help her studies.

But her shortage of cash is the least of her worries right now.

"I fear that no one will talk to me and no one will want to be my friend. It will be more painful even than death," said Cuicui.

Many of the students, who have attended special schools their whole lives, are daunted by the prospect of moving into mainstream society.

"I don't know if the teachers in college will treat me like other students. I don't know if my classmates are willing to study and live together with me," Hu, another HIV-positive student from the school, wrote in an open letter before taking the college entrance examination.

Their worries are grounded in fact. Even though their identities are concealed right now, even from school administrators, it is possible that their identities might be revealed in the future and that they will be discriminated against as HIV-positive students have been victimized before

In 2010, a 6-year-old HIV-positive child in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region had to quit school after his classmates' parents staged a protest over his enrollment. In 2016, HIV-positive 11-year-old Shasha dropped out of school after parents at her school waged a year-long campaign to expel her.

Some have alleged that the 15 students have already faced discrimination. They took the college entrance examination in a separate room from other students in their area as parents opposed them sitting in the same room as their children.

Guo revealed to the Global Times that the students have received psychological therapy to prepare them for the difficulties and discrimination they may face in society, but he is optimistic.

"I believe they will have no problems," he said, explaining that the thinks that they will reveal their identities to people at their colleges once they have formed trusting relationships.

"They will decide when to tell others by themselves. It takes time, since it will be too abrupt and scary to reveal their secret at the beginning," said Guo.

Long way to go

Statistics show that while China's HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is low, it has one of the largest populations of people living with HIV/AIDS, estimated to be around 850,000 by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

One group among whom the prevalence of HIV has grown in recent years is students. According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, from 2011-15, the number of students between 15 and 24 living with HIV increased by 35 percent year on year, and 65 percent of the students contracted the virus on campus. This campus crisis has helped fuel paranoia about the enrollment of the Red Ribbon School's students into college.

To meet this problem, the government and civil society have both boosted their fight against the virus, both by spreading knowledge and trying to cut out discrimination against people living with HIV.

Peng Liyuan has been part of this fight since 2006. After being made a Goodwill Ambassador against Tuberculosis and AIDS by the WHO, she met with children at the Red Ribbon School and HIV-positive kids in Anhui Province several times.

Organizations like Rongai Tiankong have also been working on spreading knowledge to improve the situation. A few HIV-positive individuals have been brave enough to stand up to tell the public not to be afraid of people like them.

Moreover, people living with HIV have a legal right to equal treatment in education and employment.

But this taboo is deep-rooted, with many saying the only long-term solution is to ensure people are given accurate information when they are still young.

"More guidance and prevention knowledge should be spread to be told in this regard to reduce the fear," said Xiaoqiang. He has given lectures at schools and has found there is severe lack of sex education, particularly among students living in remote areas, which partly explains the increasing number of HIV-positive students and the persistence of the taboo around HIV.

"More sex education should be carried out on campus, which may at least reduce risks," he added.

However, Liang Jianbing, associate professor at the Law School of Liaoning Normal University, said enrollment should depend on the physical examinations conducted by colleges, in adherence with relevant regulations made by the Ministry of Education.

He suggested adding a test for HIV if the present physical examination does not cover, to "protect the interests of the majority."

Newspaper headline: Students with a secret

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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