HIV and Drug abuse professionals say scars of police sweep operation will take time to heal
It takes years of hard work and patience to build trust with stigmatized and vulnerable communities but it only takes an overnight police operation to corrode it.
HIV-AIDS and drug abuse professionals in Greece have experienced first hand the challenge of rebuilding trust with the communities they work with ever since the Greek police targeted HIV positive injecting drug users in the centre of Athens ten months ago.
The “sweep” operation led to the arrest and imprisonment of 26 HIV positive women on illegal prostitution charges and a felony charge of intending to harm their clients. The women saw their photos and personal data published on the official website of the Greek police and reproduced on television immediately after their arrest. Though charges for the majority of the women have now been dropped or reduced, street workers, AIDS activists and doctors say the scars of the incident may take a long time to heal.
“Phones were ringing off the hook. At first we didn’t know what was going on,” said Marianela Kloka, director of the Athens-based NGO Positive Voice, recalling the hours following the publication of the photos of the women and release of their personal data. Positive Voice, which advocates for the rights of HIV positive Greeks, was among several groups and initiatives that robustly protested the arrests. According to Kloka, the HIV community suddenly experienced “a real fear that they could also be accused of a felony at any time without having transmitted the virus.”
“It was tragic,” said Ourania Georgiou, a doctor who treats HIV positive patients at Evangelismos General Hospital in Athens. Georgiou said she started calling TV channels as soon as she saw the women’s mug shots reproduced on the news last May, demanding that they discontinue broadcasting them. “You have no idea what it’s like, to do your job for years and years and have it all destroyed by a television report in a split second. It will take time to rebuild trust with our patients.”
HIV-positive Greeks felt they were “losing the earth from under their feet” said Anna Kavouri, head of social services at Kentro Zois, an NGO which supports HIV-positive people. “It was the most shocking thing that we had seen in the 20 years that our organization has been in existence. HIV was suddenly seen as a plague, which the government would save us from,” she said. “We said that we were HIV positive too, come arrest us,” Kavouri said, recalling the day when protests were held outside the courthouse where the women were led to a judge in full view of TV crews.
Social workers supporting drug users have been dealing with similar challenges since the case broke out. Eleni Marini, an outreach worker for the drug rehabilitation network KETHEA heads a team working in the streets of Athens daily and has been in touch with many of the women since their release from prison. “Trust was lost,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy to continue our relationship with them even though we were close to them from the first moment,” Marini said.
Although KETHEA has maintained the capacity to welcome drug addicts in its units, police operations frequently force drug users to relocate, which complicates the work of people like Marini in approaching them and offering support.
HIV has seen a significant rise among injecting drug users in Greece, an alarming trend that has coincided with austerity cuts in the health and social services sector including in preventive services. This week it was reported that ΗΙV-AIDS drugs have been removed from the list of medicines covered by the Greek state insurer, EOPYY. No legal prescription process is currently in place at hospitals, which creates further uncertainty for HIV-positive Greeks. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) cited in its 2012 report that the number of HIV cases among injecting drug users during 2011 represented 27% of total cases up from 2-3% in 2010. Almost three quarters of new cases were among male drug users, while the majority of overall HIV cases were also among the male population and were Greek nationals and Athens residents.
An estimated 96 women were rounded up and force-tested for HIV inside a central police station by doctors from the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control, KEELPNO, a few days before the May 6 elections. The incident was condemned internationally, including in a statement by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS, UNAIDS, which Greek activists have described as a rare intervention by that organization in a country’s domestic affairs. Even though a joint law suit has since been brought by some of the women and four NGOs against a KEELPNO doctor and a police officer involved in the arrests, there have been no suspensions or known investigations of anyone involved.
“It feels like we’ve gone back to the 1980s when there was enormous fear and ignorance about AIDS,” said Kloka. For the time being, activists like her have the tough job of trying to turn back the clock and fix the damage.
A documentary on the case, to be released this spring, has just completed filming in Greece. The documentary is supported by Unite and Union Solidarity International and is made by a team of volunteer journalists as part of an ongoing attempt to independently report news about Greece for an international audience.
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