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New Year, New Possibly Discriminatory HIV Registry in Russia

In a country in which HIV and homosexuality are stigmatized, the registry might be more sickness than cure.

russia-hiv
russia-hiv

To be HIV positive in Russia is to be stigmatized.

Though roughly 1 percent of Russians are HIV positive, Moscow refuses to acknowledge that an epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of cases go undiagnosed. Non-government organizations that accept foreign funds to fight AIDS must, per Russian law, declare themselves “foreign agents.” Needle exchange programs receive next-to-no funding. And so the rate of HIV is rising in Russia between 10 and 15 percent annually.

Russia eschews more modern tactics of fighting HIV and instead favors of a zero-tolerance policy for drug use and “moral education,” the preferred cure of the Orthodox Church. Now, however, it has added a third tactic: a national registry of HIV patients, launched with the new year. Health Ministry Spokesman Oleg Salagai told TASS, the Russian news agency, “Any individual diagnosed with HIV should be interested in being included in this register since he or she will receive medicine on this basis.”

To be HIV positive in Russia is to be stigmatized.

Though roughly 1 percent of Russians are HIV positive, Moscow refuses to acknowledge that an epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of cases go undiagnosed. Non-government organizations that accept foreign funds to fight AIDS must, per Russian law, declare themselves “foreign agents.” Needle exchange programs receive next-to-no funding. And so the rate of HIV is rising in Russia between 10 and 15 percent annually.

Russia eschews more modern tactics of fighting HIV and instead favors of a zero-tolerance policy for drug use and “moral education,” the preferred cure of the Orthodox Church. Now, however, it has added a third tactic: a national registry of HIV patients, launched with the new year. Health Ministry Spokesman Oleg Salagai told TASS, the Russian news agency, “Any individual diagnosed with HIV should be interested in being included in this register since he or she will receive medicine on this basis.”

Salagai stressed that registration is not compulsory. However, Yelena Maksimkina, director of the Medication Support Department of Russia’s Health Ministry, explained that “we don’t order any medicine without having in mind a certain patient.” This could be understood as saying that patients need to be on the registry to receive much-needed medication.

But it is possible — and perhaps, given Russia’s track record of treatment of HIV patients, perhaps even likely — the registry will bring with it its own ailments. It could be used to crack down further still against Russia’s LGBTQ community — even though it is heterosexual sex that is expected to pull past intravenous drug use as the primary passage of HIV infection. Gay men and transgender people are at particular risk of HIV, and Russian laws criminalize “gay propaganda” — that is, any material that suggests that to be homosexual is the same as being heterosexual. Additionally, LGBTQ Russians are regularly discriminated against.

In June 2016, Russia led the charge to remove language from a U.N. resolution that would have decriminalized homosexuality and drug use. A draft of the resolution said homosexuality and drug use were to be treated as “human rights issues.” But the final version was watered down to only stress the importance of helping intravenous drug users and gay and transgender men. Governments, said Russian health official Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik, had a “sovereign right” to decide how to pursue public health.

On the first day of 2017, it was a right they seemed to exercise.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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