The case of five HIV-infected children being expelled from a school in Kerala after parents discovered the children’s infected status should not be taken as an anomaly. It is an appalling reminder that we are a very long way from inculcating a sense of empathy for those infected with HIV, despite the millions spent on awareness campaigns. More importantly, the expulsion of the children showcases the incompetence of the school authorities who should have known better about handling such a sensitive issue. The head of an institution cannot simply buckle under parental threats of withdrawing their wards if infected children attend a school. It is, however, naive to find such a reaction as a total shock.
Parental fears of their children being infected by their classmates are real. Children spend time in close physical proximity both inside classrooms and outside in playgrounds, and cuts and bruises can pose a threat. How does one integrate HIV-positive children into the ‘mainstream’, ensure confidentiality of their condition and address the genuine concerns of parents? The idea of integration is not about being in a state of denial about the HIV-infected. Neither is it about advertising the child’s condition. But surely, there must be a humane mean between risky ignorance and knowledge that leads to discrimination? Each town, village and city will have to work out its own model of integrating the HIV-infected with the rest of the population. In the case of schools, this has to emerge out of a training programme that teaches principals and teachers to keep a close watch on interactions between students and minimise situations conducive to the transfer of the virus, or, for that matter, any other infection. Addressing classroom situations as well as parental pressures should become part of the B.Ed curriculum.
Along with all this, however, the State should chalk out legislation that outlaws institutional discrimination. Until society learns to empathise, laws must be used to ensure that lives, especially those of children, made already vulnerable by disease, are not made even more miserable.