In 2015, Calvin was a first-year polytechnic student, a fun-loving social butterfly who knew little about sexual health or HIV.
One day, a month-long fever left him almost entirely immobile.
Although he immediately suspected something was wrong, Calvin had to wait until he regained his strength before he went to Actions for AIDS (AfA), a non-profit organisation in Singapore that provides anonymous testing service, to get himself tested.
The results came back two weeks later, via a phone call, while he was in the middle of a lecture.
His results had come back reactive – which meant that attempts to fight off HIV had been detected in his bloodstream.
Calvin was now HIV-positive.
The whirlwind of emotions that followed led him to break down for ten minutes, but he forced himself to stay strong, and immediately booked an appointment for his first treatment.
Grief, anguish, and a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed him. Speaking to The Pride, Calvin said: “I remember staring at the result and I could feel the whole world just stop. I couldn’t breathe.”
Left untreated, HIV, which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, can progress into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and destroy the immune system. As the body becomes unable to fight the organisms that cause infection, even a common cold can prove fatal.
The months that followed, even as he kept up with treatment, were the hardest of his life.
Grappling with the reality of his life-changing diagnosis, Calvin confessed that he had struggled with extremely dark thoughts: “I would ask myself, am I happy that I’m still alive?”
HIV-positive individuals are just like any of us
Today, the 23-year-old is the youngest of only four Singaporeans openly living with HIV.
He acts and behaves like your average local millennial – he’s bubbly, with an infectious laugh, he’s addicted to social media, and he has his quirks, like his love for pigeons. So much, in fact, that he has a “pigeon podcast” on his Instagram.
And yet, he finds it difficult to make and maintain relationships, because people are quick to shun him once they find out about his HIV status.
His friends hardly ever ask him along for dinners anymore, and his extended family has stopped inviting Calvin, and even his parents, over for Chinese New Year gatherings.
As he started to publicly share his personal journey to help raise awareness for those with HIV, his parents have tried to discourage Calvin from being an HIV advocate.
Looking away, Calvin admitted: “I don’t get support from them, and it kind of hurts.”
Even so, Calvin, who tries to see the positives whenever possible, doesn’t blame them. He said without a trace of bitterness in his voice: “I know it’s not because they are scared of me. It’s because they don’t know what to do, or what to say to me. So, they’d rather avoid me.”
HIV-related stigma and isolation hurts
Since 2016, almost 100 per cent of those diagnosed with HIV in Singapore follow through with medication to control their illness. This is thanks, in large part, to organisations such as AfA.
When AfA’s Anonymous Testing Service first started in 1991, the follow-through rate was closer to 40 per cent.
A person living with HIV can keep the virus under control and live well into their 70s. Living with HIV is much like living with any other illness.
After being on medication for a suitable amount of time, the virus becomes suppressed or undetectable, and a HIV-positive person cannot transmit the disease to anyone.
For Calvin, it took him six months to reach viral suppression, and he continues to take his medication daily. “I can’t infect anyone anymore,” he smiled. “I can’t even if I tried!”
But while much has changed about treating HIV, preconceived notions attached to the virus have not.
Unfortunately, many Singaporeans still believe outdated and patently false information. For example, that being in the same room as an HIV-positive person is dangerous, or that you can contract the illness from kissing, holding hands, or sharing meals with them.
In actual fact, you can only get or transmit HIV through very specific activities. And it is only in extremely rare cases that the disease can spread through contact between broken skin, wounds, mucous and HIV-infected blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
So yes, you can shake hands with, hug and even kiss a person with HIV.
Yet, the stigma around HIV continues to impact the lives of those like Calvin negatively.
“Back then, even I deemed myself ‘dirty’,” Calvin admitted. “I thought I was a ‘tainted’ person who would never be able to live life normally again. I took a whole year to come to terms with my diagnosis.”
Not wanting anyone to go through the same heart-wrenching feelings of pain, loneliness and isolation that consumed him for so long, Calvin began working with AfA last year as a peer counsellor and advocate.
He spends most of his work week counselling at the anonymous test clinic – where he supports newly diagnosed individuals, and tries to cultivate a sense of belonging and security amongst those with HIV.
Along with his AfA colleagues, Calvin works to educate the public on safe sexual practices, as well as on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI). He also plans road shows and workshops that cater to the LGBT community.
Acceptance and understanding make all the difference in the world
Today, there are over 6,000 Singaporeans living with HIV. Yet only a handful of them have opened up about their status.
Calvin shared: “Many of them fear repercussions: losing their loved ones, getting fired, or for foreigners, getting their visa or work permit revoked.”
Although many Singaporeans with HIV still live in shame, fear, and isolation, they can seek help with organisations like AfA. Calvin said firmly: “There is a ‘safe haven’ for those with HIV.”
He knows personally how a little bit of love and understanding can make all the difference in the world for someone with HIV.
In his moments of despair, only one friend stayed by his side.
“She – like many others – didn’t know much about HIV or how to help me,” he said. “But it was the simple things that showed she cared: she would ask me whether I have taken my medication or not. That was something I didn’t get very often.”
He also found support from the online community, many of whom were glad someone like Calvin spoke openly about his condition, and encouraged him to keep going.
“Without support from my best friends and the online community, I probably wouldn’t even be here today,” Calvin said.
Simply put, Calvin thought he would be dead within a year of receiving his diagnosis.
“Contracting HIV means that my life now has its complications, stresses, strains, and pains. But HIV treatment means that I’m alive and able to plan for the future, able to help others.
“I want to make the most of my life now,” he said unwaveringly. “And as long as I can help at least one person, that’s enough.”