The “Quarantine Word”

On Tuesday October 17, U.S. state representative Betty Price participated in a legislative committee meeting. Addressing the Georgia Department of Public Health’s HIV epidemiology section, Price asked, “What are we legally able to do?” before stating, “I don’t want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it.”

In posing this suggestion, Price was not moving to enact legislation or encouraging a new policy direction. Rather, her questioning emerged from a fear of a “huge population posing a risk if they’re not in treatment.” Yet regardless of Price’s intentions, her use of the “quarantine word” highlights the deep-rooted fear and confusion that surrounds HIV; one that has real effects for individuals who live with it.

To first understand why Price and others may be motivated to suggest such drastic measures, it is important to understand what HIV is. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, and is exactly that; a virus that attacks the human immune system. As a virus that may cause infection, it is distinct from AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can develop as a result of HIV infection. Whilst medications have been developed to control HIV, there is no specific cure.

Whilst such a lack of cure seemingly increases the “danger” of HIV, it by no means validates quarantine. In response to Price’s comments, CNN commentator Mel Robbins noted that to have a quarantine, the “threat to the public would have to be so substantial as to warrant the infringement upon an individual’s human rights.” Infectious diseases that have been previously quarantined are generally done so for limited periods of time. In the case of HIV, this would not be possible.

According to UNAIDS, 36.7 million people were living with HIV as of 2016. In Georgia alone, 46,870 people were living with HIV in 2014. Were Price’s suggestions to be implemented, 46,870 individuals in Georgia alone would be cut off from their families and their friends. They would be denied the opportunity of choice; the choice of movement, of housing, of travel, of participation. 46,870 people would be established to be distinctly different in a manner that somehow renders them less human.

This is not the case. People living with HIV are fundamentally people, and are not characterized by their virus. Regardless of the fear of confusion that motivates suggestions akin to Prices’, it is essential that people living with HIV are treated with respect and dignity. It is when they are treated as mere “carriers” of HIV that societal divisions and conflicts are exacerbated. It is then that an “us” versus “them” mentality emerges, whereby some are advantageously privileged, and others are treated inhumanely. For the sake of societal peace and prosperity, we can not allow this to happen.

Fundamentally, the “quarantine word” is not just a word. When used to suggest measures to address HIV, it connotes the creation of societal divisions that cannot be tolerated. This notion was most aptly encapsulated by LGBQT advocate Sarah Kate Ellis’ response to Price: “We have come a long way in how we understand and talk about HIV as a nation, and comments like those made by Georgia State Representative Betty Price fly in the face of that progress, and of basic decency.”

Emily Forrester

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