Sandwich-board men and street artists crowd the intersection at Yonge and Dundas. Under billboards for Canadian television and shoe companies, a chirpy young woman with a clipboard approaches passersby and asks them to answer a few simple questions: "How often do you wear condoms?" "Are you in a committed relationship?" and "Would you like some free condoms?"
This exercise doesn't involve the collection of data or recording of demographic information. Then what is it for?
"It's for the international AIDS awareness conference that's in Toronto right now. " Only there is no AIDS awareness conference. This may seem like semantic nitpicking, but the slip reveals how the "awareness' idea is engulfing our understanding of the disease.
Even before HIV/AIDS became a cause célèbre, it was hard to find anyone who wasn't aware of AIDS and how it's transmitted. I learned about it as child in the mid-80s from the HIV episode of Degrassi High.
But, paradoxically, marketing campaigns selling "awareness" can sometimes service ignorance rather than foster actual understanding of the systemic reasons for the spread of the disease globally.
I even find myself feeling snarly about the otherwise effective Aldo AIDS campaign now wallpapering Toronto. Here celebrities like Salma Hayek and Avril Lavigne are trying to counter the stigma of blame and immorality attached to the disease. The billboard blitz also raises money for counselling and testing centres and peer counselling through YouthAIDS.
But when David Morales's Aldo poster informs us that "AIDS doesn't discriminate. No territory, no age, no race," though he's celebrating the positive message of our human sameness, it makes me uneasy. The problem is, AIDS does discriminate.
Demographically, its spread is highly correlated to poverty, even within North America. And neglect of the condom is not the only factor leading to higher infection rates.
Untreated HIV means higher levels of the virus in the blood and thus greater probability of transmission. Lack of access to hospitals in poor countries means people with untreated STIs can have open sores that increase the chance of infection.
(A spokesperson for Aldo could not be reached for comment.)
Awareness campaigns place the emphasis on individuals to protect themselves, certainly a critical matter, but seldom address the larger societal issues. Women in some parts of the world, for example, may be averse to testing since a positive result might lead to beatings, social isolation or murder. Demanding their partners use condoms may not be a straightforward matter for women who are financially dependent on men this is part of the global wealth disparity.
For awareness to be effective, it has to move beyond simple banana-meets-condom instruction. It has to convey that the term includes awareness of the way the world does fairness.