December 1, 2020


By Mercy Shibemba, 2017 Legacy Award recipient from Cardiff, Wales

Mercy is a courageous social activist who has used her own experience of stigma and discrimination to drive her commitment and pursuit of equality for young people living with HIV. Mercy is the current Chair of the Children’s HIV Association’s (CHIVA) Youth Committee and uses this role to drive campaigns on behalf of young people living with HIV.

The year 2020 has brought many into an entirely different, challenging and isolating reality as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AIDS pandemic is something a lot of people have drawn parallels to over the last few months. That pandemic too, posed its own challenges and interruptions, many of which we have still to overcome.

My whole life has been accompanied by a virus; the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. As a young person living with HIV, 2020 has been a year of both unprecedented challenges and change. But, I have found my journey with HIV has in many ways equipped me for this.

Mercy at 2017 Legacy Award ceremony.

Here I share what living with HIV has taught me, so that it might help those who are struggling as we continue to navigate our way through COVID-19:

1. Be courageous in the face of the unknown:
Through the experience of finding out that I was born with HIV, I have learned that whatever happens in life, our reaction is still within our control. Choosing to be courageous isn’t always easy, but it’s usually right. For me, choosing to come out publicly about living with HIV in 2017 was a decision I came to after much consideration. I did so when I received my Diana Award because I knew that I was capable of being bold.  Once I did, it paved the way for me to live a life without fear of being judged. I had finally owned what made me different. Throughout this pandemic, many of us face choices on what to do and how to act. My challenge to you is; choose courage and with the right support network of people cheering you on, thrive in whatever opportunities are available to you.

2. Isolation can bring a unique perspective:
Living with HIV is an isolating experience for many due to the stigma and discrimination surrounding it. Unfortunately, perceptions of HIV lag behind scientific progress. People living with HIV can expect a normal life expectancy with access to treatment. They are also unable to pass on HIV if undetectable, which simply means that if you have access to treatment the amount of virus in your body is too small to pass onto others. These two facts represent a significant change for people living with HIV, yet still largely unknown by the general population.
My own feelings of isolation because of HIV stigma taught me to be mindful of others who may be feeling isolated too. When I came out after receiving my award, I had messages from people around the world to say that my story had inspired them to push past their feelings of isolation and talk to someone. I now have an entirely different perspective on isolation – it doesn’t have to hold you back.

3. Hope can keep you going:
When I discovered I had HIV, I was full of questions and anxiety about how my life could be limited by the disease. Looking back, I have gone on to do more than I could’ve dreamt of! This was only achieved with the support of those around me, always championing me to have hope that I could still achieve great things. This year has taught me that hope is a necessary tool to keep going. 2020 has been unrelenting and unpredictable and there’s much to feel concerned about. However, many have had moments of inspiration, innovation and this has given many the hope to carry on. I encourage you to take the last few weeks of the year to take stock of things you can be hopeful for as 2021 comes around. There will be more than you think!

Mercy received her Legacy Award from HRH The Duke of Cambridge and The Duke of Sussex.

I hope that you’ve been encouraged, challenged and inspired by reading this. If you want to get involved or learn more about HIV: the Avert website has lots of materials which are useful resources.

If you want to know more about my own journey, last year I featured in a documentary about being young and living with HIV which you can watch here.

Finally, if you want to combat stigma and misinformation about HIV then perhaps you can share a fact that intrigued you from above via social media this World AIDS Day – and make sure you use the hashtags:
#WorldAIDSDay and #WAD2020.

RELATED Blog Posts