Last year on 12 May at 2.30 a huge earthquake hit the Chinese province of Sichuan just north of the provincial capital of Chengdu. It measured 7.9 and devastated cities and towns, killing an estimated 70,000 people, leaving communities traumatised and suffering.
At the heart of this disaster was a group of already vulnerable people many of whom were never seen in the international news headlines and whose stories were never heard.
They are China’s marginalised and vulnerable at the centre of the country’s rapidly increasing HIV and AIDS epidemic - the sex workers, men who have sex with men and people living with HIV.
Stigmatised, marginalised and coping with this huge natural disaster AIDS organisations, supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, reflect on how things changed and how the barriers of discrimination came down when the earthquake hit.
Yang Yu is from Chengdu. Yang runs an HIV outreach programme for gay men at the Chengdu Tongle Centre. They provide condoms and talk to the men about safe sex and how to prevent the spread of HIV.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) in China face discrimination that prevents them from getting tested for HIV or accessing treatment. Because of the stigma men marry and have wives and families which can put their wives at risk of contracting HIV.
“The earthquake claimed many lives, caused immeasurable damage to properties, and still worse, resulted in great trauma and suffering…,” recounts Yang.
“After the initial quake, gay pubs had to close, which greatly impacted HIV outreach activities. In the face of disaster people are often terrified and they need warmth and unity more than ever.
“Many gays in Chengdu gathered in gay baths and lived there to avoid the aftershocks. This greatly increased their risk of HIV infection. Realising that, staff on local AIDS organisations who were also suffering from the earthquake, continued to provide outreach activities. They increased their efforts by sending outreach workers to help them overcome fear, distribute condoms, advocate safe sex and provide HIV prevention knowledge.”
“… gay volunteers from various locations expressed their care and concern by donating 17608 RMB Yuan on the spot.” A gay volunteer group purchased water, instant noodles, medicines and stationery with the money raised. They provided these things to all victims of the earthquake who desperately needed supplies.
Yang Dou also works for the organisation. “After the earthquake, the best side of human nature was inspired. More local MSM joined the Chengdu MSM Group to volunteer and contribute to help those hurt in the disaster.”
Ziyun Group is a sex worker organisation in Mianyang city, 90km northwest of Chengdu who had to leave their building which was labelled as dangerous three days after the quake.
They moved into the Chinese Centre of Disease Control offices, the local government run institution that implements much of China’s HIV/AIDS programming and works closely with civil society groups, so they could continue their HIV prevention work.
But as one worker explained, “It was impossible to get all our sisters to participate in activities at the CDC. The sisters were not willing to go there… so we provided a range of activities in hotels. This gave them a clean, safe environment to run clinics and provide condoms for the sex workers.”
Graham Smith is the Director of Alliance China. “The country’s AIDS epidemic is on the rise. When disaster strikes ensuring that communities are still able to access medicines, clean water and food to stay healthy is vital for people living with HIV.
“Contrary to what many people believe in the West there is a civil society in China and they came to the fore with their expertise and experience of reaching the vulnerable and marginalised, providing support not only to their client group but to the many other people caught up in the devastation. They worked successfully alongside the authorities.
“Out of the disaster China witnessed its biggest exercise in internal charitable giving ever seen and it was a first.”
Ziyun Group and Chengdu Tongle Centre are now hoping that the passion and concern demonstrated by China’s new generation in the face of adversity can be harnessed to enable them to successfully fight the rise of HIV.