Media Matters

HIV Minds

The "Washington Post" editorial page advocates the worst kind of liberal unilateralism.

By 5.12.08

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In January, Peace Corps volunteer Jeremiah S. Johnson tested positive for HIV. He was deported from host country Ukraine and discharged from the Corps. A nation that reports Europe's highest HIV-AIDS death rate turns out unsurprisingly to have qualms about foreigners with life-threatening communicable infections. The Washington Post, however, has qualms not only with the Corps but also with Ukraine.

In a fiery editorial Tuesday, the Post blasted the deportation, calling Ukraine's policy "misguided" and "discriminatory." It dodged the objection that a post-Soviet country that the International HIV/AIDS Alliance reports is experiencing "one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world" might not be crazy for prioritizing its public health worries above the rights of a foreigner, such as they are, in Mr. Johnson's tragic position. It also dodged the inconvenient fact that the United States metes out very similar treatment to most HIV-infected foreign nationals.

This is one of those cases where the editorialist's fire strikes one good target -- the Peace Corps -- and mows down the less culpable guy nearby. The Corps' discredit is an unnecessary and probably discriminatory discharge of Mr. Johnson. As it turns out, finding him suitable work in a place other than Ukraine would have been quite feasible with a little ingenuity.

That is where the just criticism ends. Ukraine was simply acting similarly to the United States' own policies regarding HIV-positive foreign nationals, but with a bigger public-health crisis on its hands. And second-guessing the Corps' acquiescence in Ukraine's deportation is to suggest that the Corps should order Ukraine to accept an American citizen it has decided to expel as a matter of public health. This sort of foreign-policy behavior is normally called "unilateralism" by the punditocracy.

GENERALLY, THE Peace Corps has disqualified HIV-positive candidates along with sufferers of a variety of other health conditions. Traveling to and working in often impoverished, health-care-bereft developing countries, it is not difficult to see why.

(In the wake of this controversy, the Corps' spokeswoman is busily stressing that HIV status is not an automatic disqualifier to joining. Don't buy it. The organization's own website says that it is "typically unable to reasonably accommodate applicants" with any of 51 listed conditions including common ailments such as asthma and kidney stones and debilitating illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson's. HIV infection is among them.)

If and when the Corps revises that policy, it will open itself to charges of discrimination against the sufferers of at least some of the 50 other conditions. Some aggrieved asthmatics or kidney-stone passers probably also consider themselves fit for duty, as Mr. Johnson says he is.

The Corps will need to cross that awkward bridge when it comes to it, and field charges -- arguably very justified charges -- that it has created a special, protected status for the HIV-positive it does not afford others. It will also need to contend with health-insurance and liability costs, which Congress would need to be ready to fund.

But on the diplomatic merits alone, it might surprise readers that the Corps could probably now consider accepting HIV-positive applicants, subject to country restrictions, without much difficulty. A number of Peace Corps participant countries might accept HIV-infected volunteers, if the Corps were to send them.

Visa, immigration and naturalization rules around the world for the HIV-positive vary widely: Some countries are draconian; others are surprisingly liberal. The United States tends to be more restrictive than many other wealthy countries. But a number of developing-world countries that do not unduly restrict the entry of HIV-positive foreigners could probably be convinced to host HIV-positive Peace Corps volunteers.

Some of these countries, particularly the poorer ones, are much less capable than the United States of treating HIV and AIDS as a "lifestyle" issue -- to the point that a disinterested observer might question the wisdom of such an approach. But as a matter of policy in countries with democratic governments, who is to object when a country arrives at the decision voluntarily? Who would be in a position to protest if Zambia or Botswana, say, were to agree to admit HIV-positive Peace Corps volunteers?

AS IT HAPPENS, the State Department will soon be finding its own way on this issue. In February, facing a lawsuit, it opened the Foreign Service to HIV-positive candidates for the first time. Insofar as the host country permits, there's no real objection (the cost to the federal budget is a rounding error).

The Post, though, seems to want to challenge the right of Ukraine to determine its own visa, entry and work policies for HIV-positive foreigners, as if the country has no right to use those policies in the fight against a burgeoning epidemic. This is not a standard the United States woud want applied to itself on this or a great many other subjects.

It was President Kennedy who, when ordering the Peace Corps' creation in 1961, pledged to "only send abroad Americans who are wanted by the host country." The Post may not like how Ukraine goes about fighting Europe's worst HIV/AIDS death rate, but the case against its right to fight it is exceedingly weak.

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About the Author

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at the Washington Times and a 2006 journalism fellow at the Phillips Foundation.