Editorial: Power of icons and networks

Published in The Hindu on May 17, 2005

Amitabh Bachchan, who was recently named goodwill ambassador for the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, will use his baritone voice and charisma to address issues critical to children, including HIV/AIDS. By committing themselves to the fight against the stigma and discrimination inflicted on HIV/AIDS patients, top cricketers led by the great Sachin Tendulkar are doing an outstanding service to society. Last year saw the world’s top-rated Test batsman, Rahul Dravid, evoke a cricket parallel to advise condom use for protection. His `straight drive’ message is part of the Heroes Project. The ability of Sachin, Rahul, Amitabh & Co. to connect with people and sway public opinion, especially in the younger age groups, on issues such as this is hard to match. Elsewhere, the campaign has benefited significantly from HIV-infected celebrities turning protagonists for change in people’s behaviour. When `Magic’ Johnson disclosed his HIV infection in 1991, requests for counselling and testing increased dramatically. Brazil’s inspiring record in containing the disease reflects the fighting spirit, hard work, and success of networks formed by HIV-infected people. These networks helped in lobbying governments for better access to medicines, and mobilising popular support for the battle against de-humanising stigma and discrimination. India was rather late to realise the high value of such efforts at empowerment. It was only in 2003 that the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) started seeing networks formed by HIV-infected people as partners in the fight against stigma and discrimination and in the task of providing relevant information to the needy. It will be some time before these efforts gain the critical mass required to influence society at large.