Music superstar Sir Elton John said Monday that the fastest way for the world to wake up from its 31-year-old HIV/AIDS nightmare was to put a lot more love in their hearts.
"We need to put our arms around people who are HIV-positive," he said. "If you show compassion, no one will be afraid to seek treatment."
The famously gay singer talked about how he "shouldn't even be here today."
"I should be dead. Six feet under and in a wooden box. I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s," like Queen singer Freddie Mercury and actor Rock Hudson and so many other loved ones and friends, he said.
But instead of dying, Mr. John said he now has "a wonderful life, with a loving partner and a beautiful son" — and has been "sober and clean for 22 years."
"Every day I wonder, how did I survive?" he said. The full answer will never be known, but "the message that saved my life" — and could save millions of lives if put into practice — is that everyone deserves compassion, dignity and love.
"Why do I tell you this? Because the AIDS disease is caused by a virus, but the AIDS epidemic is not," Mr. John said, beseeching the audience to stand against stigma, homophobia, criminalization and other blaming, denigrating actions aimed at people with HIV/AIDS, including prostitutes, drug users and men who have sex with men.
The singer, who was frequently applauded, called for an end to the "hate in Uganda, stigma in the Ukraine, indifference in the United States."
He praised those who responded to the epidemic by comforting and serving people, even if it meant defying institutions such as the Catholic Church. "I know Jesus is smiling down on you despite what the Vatican might say," he said, speaking to unidentified nuns and priests.
Mr. John praised former President George W. Bush and other conservative leaders for "pledging tens of billions" of dollars to save the lives of people with HIV around the world.
More policy changes are needed, though, Mr. John said, citing "clean needles" programs and an end to stoning gay men and locking up HIV-positive people. "For Christ's sake, this is the 21st century!" he blurted out.
Mr. John also chided the United States for allowing its own HIV/AIDS epidemic to carry on. "America has shown so much love to those living with HIV in the developing world," he said. If this country wanted to end HIV/AIDS here, "it could do so in a heartbeat. All it takes is a bit more funding, and a bit more understanding."
And more love and compassion, he added, noting that even if there's a vaccine and a cure someday, those things won't be enough because they won't end stigma and prejudice faced by those living with the disease.
"Science can stop the disease, but science alone can't end the plague," Mr. John concluded. "We have to replace the shame with love, we have to replace the stigma with compassion. No one should be left behind. That is how we will end the plague."
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