37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)
As Ezekiel envisions himself in this valley of dry bones, he gazes at all of the death and despair at his feet and he reflects on what was. Then God asks him to consider what could be. Can these bones live? Ezekiel is any healthcare professional, or caregiver, or beloved family member during the dark age of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 80s. These bones were the people dying with HIV. And just as Ezekiel was only able to envision what was, they said, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of [Israel]the living.” God again reminds them of what could be.
Since the identification of HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s, an estimated 39 million people have died from the disease worldwide, leading many to still believe HIV and AIDS to be a death sentence. So often when we think about HIV and AIDS, we think only about what was; we think only about the dying. But we don’t have to anymore; HIV no longer has to be synonymous with death. God has gifted us a new covenant in God’s son Jesus Christ and we cry out to him as the sister’s of Lazarus did , “Lord, the one you love is sick.” The ones you love are sick. And Jesus responds with the possibility of what could be; “This sickness will not end in death.”
Since the advent of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in 1996 people living with HIV and AIDS could begin to depart from what was and arrive at the possibilities of what could be. The near dead have literally been brought back to life as a result of this revolutionary antiretroviral treatment, causing many in HIV and AIDS services to adopt the phrase “The Lazarus Effect” to describe its resurrecting power. People are now living with HIV and AIDS and no longer dying at the rates in which we saw during the early years of the epidemic. In fact, today there are approximately 37 million people living with the virus, nearly as many people who have died from HIV and AIDS related illnesses in the last 34 years. Yet there is still much work to be done.
Of the nearly 37 million people living with HIV globally, only 43% of them have access to these life-saving medications, leaving the lives of more than half of the world’s HIV infected population to chance. Despite having the science and medicine to relegate HIV and AIDS to a chronic disease, access to treatment remains the common variable in turning the tide in the epidemic.
Imagine if Lazarus didn’t have access to God’s mercy and grace? Imagine if he was cut off from the healing power of Jesus Christ because of his race, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status – Lazarus’ tomb would not be empty, Martha and Mary would still be mourning, and the promise of tomorrow would be uncertain. The Lazarus Effect is about much more than life-resurrecting treatment. The Lazarus Effect is about the restoration of families, economic empowerment, and the future of the world as we know it.
When HIV infection goes untreated, the burden on family morale increases and family infrastructure is compromised. Everyone in the household becomes caregivers and those infected become priority often in the midst of many other competing priorities. Families find themselves separated from the community as the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS infects the uninfected. The ability for one or all members of the family to earn a living becomes jeopardized as healthcare costs increase while income decreases because the sick are no longer able to work.
Perhaps the most devastating effect of the lack of access to HIV and AIDS treatment, is the failure of families to consider what could be. Investment in the future ceases as families prepare only for what seems to be an inevitable end, thus affecting not just the infected, but the family and even the greater community. Therefore, access to treatment is much bigger than the singular; it’s much bigger than the one. Access to treatment becomes access to hope; access to prosperity; and access to the future for an entire generation. HIV is the thief that has come only to steal, kill and destroy; the Lazarus Effect is the fulfillment of God’s promise that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.
So while the ultimate goal remains – getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, this World AIDS Day is all about fast-tracking the progress being made to double the number of people on life-saving ARV treatment by 2020 so that we might end AIDS by 2030. Jesus wept about the reality that Lazarus’ life had ended, so Jesus acted to change that reality and restore the hopes and dreams of tomorrow, not just for Lazarus, but for his family and his community.
Today, let us act in the same way – let us be authors of a new reality so that the only end in sight is not that of life, but that of death. Let our weeping be that of joyful tears and not sorrow. Let our living be committed to ending AIDS.
Alternate version originally posted at: http://www.elca.org/en/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/11/151201-The-Lazarus-effect-and-AIDS