Despina Biri: Ruins – chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt – some thoughts

Posted by on Nov 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


Recently I had the chance to see this documentary on last year’s stigmatization campaign against HIV positive women in Athens. I think it certainly adds to the arsenal of evidence against the public health policies pursued by the Greek government, and makes a strong case for sanctions against those agreeing to breaches of privacy and human dignity. In this post I will discuss some issues highlighted in the documentary, from the viewpoint of human rights.

But first, let me just say that what really struck a chord with me were the human stories outlined during the film. It made me realise that the problem does not begin and end with the public persecution of these women. Rather, the problem is letting these women fall through the cracks, and be ravaged by drug use, poverty and homelessness, only to serve as a device for attracting conservative votes.

The fact that these instances of public humiliation constitute a violation of human rights is implicit in the events as presented in the film. I am especially concerned by the violation of the human right to health, and the fact that, in the host of articles written on this topic, this particular issue is not highlighted enough in my opinion. Therefore the aim of this post will be to examine the circumstances under which the human right to health was violated, and to critique both the Greek and international community for not fulfilling its role of holding the Greek government and security forces to account.

In many cases, women were tested without giving their consent, without having the procedure explained to them, without having the results disclosed to them immediately after becoming known. So these women were denied the provision of information and knowledge about their own bodies. Of course the picture is complicated by issues relating to communication of risk, specifically to the specificity and sensitivity of the test used, and even further by the fact that no treatment or further testing was offered to those found to be infected.

Second, they had their personal details disclosed publicly. In a recent online encounter, a commenter on one of my articles voiced the opinion that, if prostitution is legal, then it’s OK (sic) for sex workers to have their freedom restricted and their names publicised to protect the majority (his words). Now I have many objections to this type of utilitarian thinking, but let me refute the disinformation that the detained women were sex workers. According to the research carried out by the filmmaker, only one of 32 detained women was a sex worker. It was she especially who was humiliated the most by the media, who adopted the shorthand of ‘HIV positive sex workers’ for all subsequent cases. So while it may indeed be OK to restrict the activities of a professional group to protect public health (not my personal opinion), this argument rests on a false premiss, in that the overwhelming majority of the women were not sex workers. The fact that this was not immediately and emphatically corrected by the media once more information on the case became known means that false information has well and truly entered the mass unconscious, and now it’s much harder to set the record straight.

These women were initially accused of ‘grievous bodily harm’, i.e. they were accused of intentionally setting out to spread the virus to “innocent Greek family men”. I would be very curious to see the grounds for this accusation, as I’m not sure whether it has any legal precedent. Even if it does, the notion of intentionality with respect to infectious disease spread seems problematic. For what would these women gain were there to be a rise in HIV prevalence in the population? This type of thinking is characteristic of a conspiracy-theoretical approach encountered all too often in Greek public life, arguing that ‘foreigners are out to destroy us’. This type of argumentation rests on the sad fact that the science behind the spread and nature of HIV infection is still not well understood by the general population in Greece. This is exemplified by the fact that when the women were taken to court, court administrators and police officers coming into contact with the women were seen wearing masks and latex gloves, apparently to protect themselves from becoming infected. This kind of ignorance is further damaging to the dignity of the arrestees, in that their HIV positive status became the defining feature by which the criminal justice system approached them.

At no point was a consultation with a doctor offered, in order to discuss the course of treatment. In some cases no medical personnel was present when testing was carried out. Even when a medical professional was present, it really begs the question of why they did not intervene to stop this undignified, racist and unethical practice. It also begs the question why these professionals are allowed to continue to practice medicine without any investigation as to their involvement, another reason why this incident cannot be said to be a one-time event.

All of the above point to a fundamental lack of concern with the duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to health, to use the language preferred by the WHO. I would even go so far as to suggest that this practice is a backtracking in terms of the state’s obligation to progressively realize the human right to health, in that a new discriminatory practice was introduced to manage a comparatively small public health issue for political gain. Seeing Loverdos speak at the World Health Assembly using fabricated data as proof, and then witnessing the relatively cool stance of international organisations with respect to this policy of persecution is shocking to say the least.

Finally, the decree which Loverdos devised, and which has been exposed as having no legal basis, according to which the Minister of Health can force people to be tested for a disease against their will, has been reinstated by Adonis Georgiadis. So it certainly is not the end for public persecution, humiliation and stigmatization of women, HIV-positive individuals, migrants, men who have sex with men, and possibly other minority groups. The documentary does a good job of telling a coherent story, but we must realize that the battle has not been won, and that violation of the state’s duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to health is ongoing.