During the age of COVID-19, many of us are doing our duty to protect ourselves and others. We stay home, wash our hands, and wear masks when we absolutely must leave the house.
Many are presently feeling heightened emotions due to fear of the illness, the stresses of homeschooling children, changes to work life, etc. It is easy for our anxieties to become vitriol toward people we observe who are unwilling or unable to adhere to social distancing and other CDC recommendations. In such a climate, punitive policies can become a way to scapegoat individuals for the systemic failings of government. We are already seeing the criminalization of COVID-19 being used, in earnest, as a public health intervention.
Several writers, including experts in criminology, public health, and political journalism have already made strong cases against policing the behaviors of individuals as a viable response to the pandemic. When criminalization is used as a public health intervention, history tells us that those most likely to be vulnerable to the illness itself are also the most likely to be vulnerable to over-policing. We already have ample evidence that criminalization fails as an effective public health intervention.
In Missouri, people living with HIV (PLHIV) are severely criminalized and can face up to thirty years in prison for being unable to prove that they have disclosed their HIV status to sexual partners, regardless of whether steps were taken to reduce risk of transmission and whether or not transmission occurred. PLHIV can even be prosecuted for acts that pose no risk of transmission, such as spitting or biting. For those who are already incarcerated, if bodily fluids—including those that pose no risk of transmission—come into contact with corrections officers, they are further punished.
Originally passed in the late 80s and 90’s, these state laws are harmful, outdated and out of line with current science and public health best practices. Even worse, they were amended to be more punitive in the early 2000s. Not only do we continue to have these laws on the books, but people are still being prosecuted. According to a recent study administered by the Williams Institute, between 1988 and 2017, 593 people have come into contact with the criminal justice system because of these laws. Of those 593, 318 have been convicted. While at face value these numbers may seem small, they are staggering when we consider that there is one arrest for every 60 PLHIV in Missouri.
There is no method or amount of “personal responsibility” that can make this right. As long as people who know their HIV status are criminalized, there is no way that we can, with good conscience, promote testing and access to HIV services as the answer to ending HIV and AIDS. Even where testing and treatment are available, many PLHIV face systemic barriers to accessing it—not to mention the barriers to other essentials like housing, food access and financial stability.
Too often, and for too long, systematically oppressed people have been targeted in the name of public health. In the age of COVID-19, it’s nearly impossible to adhere to social distancing guidelines when you have no home and rely on your peers for survival. In the ongoing age of HIV, it’s exceedingly difficult to adhere to a daily HIV regimen when you don’t know where you will sleep that night or when you will have your next meal.
Meanwhile, it might feel good to many of us to wash our hands and wear face masks when we leave the house. Likewise, it might also feel good to know that advances in medicine have resulted in PrEP, a once daily pill that prevents people who are not living with HIV from acquiring it. Yet, these personal actions that we may feel moved to take are not enough and do not directly support the people who are already facing severe disparities in their lives. When we criminalize the health status of people who are already most vulnerable to systemic inequity, we perpetuate a cycle of oppression that is impossible to break without systemic intervention. We should keep washing our hands and wearing face masks, and we should seek a PrEP prescription if we want it. But we must also hold our systems and institutions accountable.
The Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, a project of Empower Missouri, is dedicated to ending the criminalization of PLHIV in the state. We work in tandem with our other coalitions toward a Missouri in which all people have food, shelter, and justice. We invite you to join us toward a shared vision of a new normal—where we all may thrive.