HIV data leak victims fear losing jobs; judgment and harassment of family and friends
They are worried about personal, professional reputations being put at risk and repercussions for family and friends
A phone call out of the blue on Sunday left Mr Ajmal Khan, 29, with more questions than answers.
Mr Khan, who has been living with HIV for the past eight years, was told that his NRIC number, address, contact details and, more importantly, his HIV-positive status, had been leaked online.
"They gave me a number to call in case I had any other questions and they apologised," the marketing manager, who went public with his HIV status in 2015, said.
"I actually was a bit surprised. I was wondering if (the leak) was malicious in intent, but they weren't able to give me any information or any kind of comfort or assurance," he told The New Paper yesterday.
As he had already come out as HIV-positive, Mr Khan said he was not too bothered by the leak.
But for many of the 14,200 HIV-positive individuals who had their confidential information stolen from the HIV registry and leaked online by American Mikhy Farrera Brochez, the news that broke on Monday has caused much consternation.
The Straits Times reported that victims of the leak were worried it would put their personal and professional reputations at risk, and they feared the judgment and harassment their family and friends could face.
"I received mixed reactions from my friends who are HIVpositive. Some are laidback about it, some are not, some are angry," Mr Khan said.
One concern is that some of those affected may lose their jobs if employers find out about their HIV status.
Replying to TNP's queries, a Ministry of Manpower spokesman said that unless contractually obligated, employees with HIV generally do not need to inform their employers about their condition.
She also said that employers should maintain the confidentiality of information regarding their employees' HIV status.
Should a data leak lead to employers discovering an employee's HIV status, they cannot discriminate against the employee.
"Singapore has employment laws to protect employees from wrongful dismissal, including on grounds of HIV," she added.
"The Employment Act empowers the Minister for Manpower to direct an employer to reinstate an employee who has been wrongfully dismissed in his former job and to pay the employee for the loss of income, or direct the employer to compensate the employee.
"We also urge employers to educate employees that HIV cannot be acquired through normal workplace settings and casual contact, and to put in place a supportive work environment for employees living with HIV."
The Singapore National Employers Federation's HIV Workplace Guidelines say there are generally no valid grounds for terminating the services of employees living with HIV just because colleagues refuse to work with them, or the employers fear damaging the image of the enterprise or adverse reactions from customers.
While these laws might assuage some of the worries, Mr Khan thinks the data leak will have some implications.
Forcibly outing those who are HIV-positive can have intangible consequences.
He said: "It is a serious issue because HIV status affects many things in people's lives - their jobs, their families, their mental health. All these things can be jeopardised."
There is still a strong stigma against HIV, so it is important that those infected are allowed to come out at their own time, with safety nets and support systems in place, he said.
"You cannot be sure of what is going to happen, so it is hard to put all the stops in place. So to be forced into an already very volatile situation is just putting more at risk."
In a Facebook post, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin called for Singaporeans to have empathy for those affected by the leak.
"It is tremendously challenging for those whose names may be in the lists," he wrote.
"I hope we all realise that this is different because of the potential real impact it can have on people's lives. Let us show that we can be different. Let us be empathetic and not participate in the online hate that may be generated."
He also cautioned against sharing the leaked information and urged the public to "stay calm and support our fellow Singaporeans".
Almost 7 in 10 HIV cases leaked
Records between 1985 and January 2013 from the HIV registry were stolen and leaked online, exposing the HIV status of some 5,400 Singaporeans and permanent residents, or almost seven in 10 (65.5 per cent) of the reported HIV cases here.
As of October last year, there were 8,247 reported cases of Singaporeans with HIV and/or Aids.
There were 265 new cases reported between January and October 2018.
Since 2008, there have been about 450 new HIV cases among Singaporeans per year.
Get The New Paper on your phone with the free TNP app. Download from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store now