IASONEVOICE: THEN AND NOW SERIES
ANTON BASENKO, 36
Diagnosed with HIV at age 22
Country of residence: Ukraine
Occupation: Senior programme officer, International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine
Take us back to when you first learned you were living with HIV. What did it mean back then and what does it mean today?
My entry point to HIV testing was a harm-reduction programme because at that time, I was a drug user living on the streets. In the beginning, hearing that I was HIV positive was like an announcement of my death. Even though the doctor told me there was treatment available, my immediate reaction was to use drugs even more heavily. I thought that I would die anyway and wanted to have some fun in my last few years. Today, after 14 years of knowing my HIV status and 12 years on antiretroviral therapy (ART), the fact that I am HIV positive opened a new life and even a new quality of life to me. All that I do now, all my activities and the fact that I work for international organizations are because of my HIV status.
Have you ever encountered any HIV-related stigma? Has this changed over the years?
In terms of my friends and my close environment, such as my relatives and parents, I was lucky because they supported me from the beginning. I experienced stigma and discrimination in other fields of my life, though. It was mainly from medical staff in the hospitals and law enforcement officials since at that time, I was still an active drug user living on the streets with frequent contact with police. One time, when I went to a healthcare facility, the medical staff rejected me and told me that this was a place for “normal” people and that people living with HIV and AIDS should go to the AIDS centre. They told me that I was a risky patient, I would infect everybody around me, and they warned me not to sit here, and not to enter there, as they didn’t see me as “normal”.
Over the years, I would say that a lot has changed for the better – at least in Kyiv. There have been specific projects targeting stigma and discrimination among medical staff or in law enforcement bodies, and this process is still running. Nevertheless, despite the progress in Kyiv and larger cities, I want to emphasize that stigma and discrimination are still present in the rural areas and smaller cities of Ukraine.
Looking back, what has been the one key lesson that living with HIV has taught you?
Living with HIV provides you with another point of view, another understanding of your life and the lives of people around you. That is the key thing for me: responsibility not only for myself, but also for the people around me. For people with a positive reaction, I want to share adequate peer information and share the same understanding with them. For people with a negative reaction, I want to share adequate information with them, explain to them that HIV is just one among many diseases out there, and that people living with HIV have the same rights as everyone else.
What role does HIV play in your daily life?
HIV plays an important role in my daily life. It defines my activities and is my motivation to work. It helps me to be happy about simple and daily things; things which I did not consider as something special before. But now I understand that even something like seeing the sunrise or breathing in fresh air is a gift.