Breaking the HIV Stigma through digitized art

THE cities of Caloocan, Manila and Quezon have high prevalence rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Metro Manila. At the same time, it is feared that the incidence might reach uncontrollable rates as reported by the Department of Health (DOH). 

In terms of the number of people with HIV infection, “we are not bad,” but on how fast Filipinos are getting it, “that’s where the urgency is coming from,” said Dr. Brian Bantugan, director at Saint Paul University’s Center for Research, Innovations and Development, and a member of National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) Division of Humanities.

Incidentally, the three cities were the first to develop in the history of urbanization in the country’s Metropolis. 

In an interview with the BusinessMirror, Bantugan explained how digitized art and the role of social media have shaped the HIV situation in the Philippines—both in good and bad terms. Bantugan was the speaker at the recent forum, titled, “Enhancing Public’s Level of Awareness on HIV-AIDS Using Digitized Art,” held by the NRCP at a hotel in Quezon City.

Encounter with the HIV issue

BANTUGAN had his first encounter on the HIV issue in 2015, when he was asked to make a standardized procedure for a social-hygiene clinic in Metro Manila. 

“The Klinika Bernardo was my formal entry to the issues on HIV,” he said.

He learned at the Klinika that not a lot of men who had sexual intercourse with men go to the social-hygiene clinics. For them, social-hygiene clinics are for sex workers and women. 

“There’s a notion that if people find you [male] there walking out, you are promiscuous and you [male] got the disease somewhere,” Bantugan said. 

It’s never about gender, it’s about promiscuity, he explained.

Most males who had sex with males were professionals. “They don’t want to go to these [social-hygiene] clinics,” Bantugan added.

The clinic made an extension called Sundown, where people could go and have themselves checked in the evening when no one could notice them.

Right after his project at Klinika, Bantugan was offered to do a social science research about HIV. He was awarded a P700,000 grant from the NRCP for his research “Going Viral: Using Digitized Arts for HIV/AIDS Related Advocacies.”

The NRCP is a collegial body of highly trained scientists and researchers to address the growing demand for knowledge and to contribute to the country’s development and to the improvement of the quality of life of the Filipino people.

HIV environment through social media

THE social media is a powerful tool for many, especially for Filipinos. It gives a person a voice but this can either be good or bad.

The HIV environment in the country is heavily related to social networks where those who get infected communicate for their sexual tryst. 

Bantugan was referring to the availability of applications or apps in Facebook or Grindr, the world’s largest social-networking app for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. 

According to Bantugan, “While it is possible to get the infection outside city, the transfer or the acquisition of the virus mostly happens during parties, such as in condominium units used for sessions for sexual activities.”

“If we consider Cebu, it’s about drugs or drug use that leads to HIV infection,” or simply the sharing of infected needles, Bantugan explained.  In Manila, he said, the spread of HIV is through sex, mainly between males, who could easily get their partners through the social media.

“Social media is the network of people getting sexual partners, say through group chats and clans,” Bantugan explained. 

A “clan” is a group of people who share the same interest, come together through social media like Facebook and socialize to get sexual partners. 

“They create groups, [set the place] where they have to meet, have a party, and then bahala na [come what may] what happens and that’s where it happens,” Bantugan added. 

“You can’t have people who are too far apart. They have to meet for the encounter.” He said if there are many clans in a city then, that city will be the site of infection.

Good side of social media through digitized art 

BANTUGAN looked at how the social media can be used to help in the turnaround of the HIV situation. 

While visiting Love Yourself, a group that conducts free HIV testing, a friend from the group brought Bantugan to an event. There, he realized that digital art plays a huge role in his research on the environment that makes use of the digital platform to help solve the problem of HIV in the country.

Bantugan conducted interviews and investigated the nature of the art being created and the people behind them. 

“Initially, I planned to do only 50 interviews from various artists, such as directors, photographers, designers, influencers and digital-media artists. But I got more than 70 interviewees throughout the process,” he said.

His subjects were creators of campaign posters, movies and other forms of digitized-media art. Only a minority, or nine of the 70 interviewees, are women, who were anti-HIV advocates and who understood the alarming spread of the illness among Filipinos.

Bantugan realized that digitized art are the jumping boards for conversations. “It is the social context and structure, and what made it possible for people to create such work is there.”

He found out that the production of digitized art is no longer linear, or runs straight. 

“With social media, the production branches out and continues to create more questions. There is continuity of work and there are a lot of possibilities to use this kind of platform to help the HIV problem.”  

He noted that the genre is not anymore an issue today. In the past, what is on television is different from what is shown in the cinema. There is distinction. 

Curently, however, “whatever is shown either on TV, or online, go both ways.”

A way to reach out

BANTUGAN shared that the most important finding in his research was that while the digital platform may be an easy way to find sexual partners and get infected with HIV, “this can also be a way to reach out to people who would rather hide than go out, than say ‘that I am infected.’” 

He insisted that creators of digitized media art are needed to reach out to people who don’t want to be tested.

“Politicians cannot do it, nor the teachers,” Bantugan told the BusinessMirror. He explained that it is simply because politicians and teachers do not have the language used in the digital platform. 

It is important, he said, for every person to understand how people can optimize the use of the digital platform. 

“We need more people who can transcend the urban context on the use of digitized platforms,” he said.

HIV stats

THE HIV epidemic took the world by storm in the 1980s because of fear, stigma and ignorance, said the World Health Organization. 

The first case of HIV infection in the Philippines was in 1984. According to HIV/AIDS Art Registry of the Philippines, there have been 60,270 confirmed HIV cases reported to HARP, wherein 94 percent (56,335) were male and 6 percent (3,861) were female, with 81 percent reported from January 2013 to October 2018. 

In the span of five years, the HIV cases skyrocketed. In 2018 a total of 488 deaths were reported. 

According to Dr. Genesis Samonte of the Department of Health Bureau of Epidemiology, only 17 percent of Filipinos have the right awareness on HIV/AIDS prevention and transmission. 

On the other hand, Dr. Verdadez Linga, Quezon City Health Department Official, said that recent survey results showed that the high percentage of new HIV infections is from the younger groups, i.e., ages 15 to 24. The youngest reported AIDS patient who sexually contracted HIV is 13 years old.

What alarmed the authorities was the report in December 2018 when13 high-school students from South Cotabato were reported HIV positive. They said that the increasing number of HIV/AIDS infections may be attributed to a lack of awareness.


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