To an observer’s eye, the long lines at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi every Friday seem much of a piece with the usual crowds to be found outside any government medical institution. But this is different. Friday is the day most HIV-positive people registered with the hospital come to collect their antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs for the month. They blend into the crowd with no distinction, waiting in line for their turn like everybody else. The disease that distinguishes them from others is often not mentioned, or is spoken of in low whispers between patients familiar with each other’s history. Most don’t want it to be known that they are HIV-positive or, worse, have one of the most incurable and most stigmatised diseases in the world, AIDS.
The way HIV/AIDS is viewed medically has changed miraculously in the last three decades. Steady developments in medicine, and timely introduction of such medicines, mean that the disease is now considered fairly manageable and not much different from, say, diabetes. The National AIDS Control Organisation’s (NACO) programme, started in 1992, has made strides in managing the disease by providing treatment, testing facilities and counselling. More than 60 per cent of all HIV-positive individuals seek treatment from government centres, bringing them into a well-defined system that provides antiretroviral therapy (ART) to those affected. Although there are still about 21.17 lakh people living with the disease in India, the number of new infections annually has gone down by 57 per cent since 2000. Yet, the associated social stigma has shown no signs of abating—patients continue to be ostracised even after all the awareness campaigns. It’s telling that not a single person we spoke to for this story wanted to be named or photographed.