It was over a year into the COVID19 pandemic when I decided to pick up a copy of Randy Shilts' now classic tome And The Band Played On. The title made me immediately correlate the two anomalies as relatable events. As a child of 1981, the AIDS outbreak was something I learned about only in the playground, unfortunately in childish and morally dubious ways. Revisiting the phenomenon felt appropriate in order to get a better understand of the experience of global disease the world already had. As far as I know, AIDS was the only modern example of a pandemic we can draw wisdom from due to its high mortality rates.
When I began the book, I was immediately struck by the homosexual descriptions of sex practice that seemed to want to shock me into either submission or intrigue. Looking at the title, I felt reassured that this wasn't going to be a continual theme, as erotica wasn't what I was looking for. Thankfully, after the first few sections, the subject matter turned more towards what would later be known as AIDS.
I was brought up to not associate AIDS with homosexual lifestyles and that doing so was prejudiced. The book however, albeit liberal minded and progressive in nature, really didn't mind about putting the two ingredients in the same bread. Perhaps the more seedy practices of homosexual behaviour that arose possibly due to the fact it was forced underground and labelled dirty to begin with, did contribute to the widespread affliction among US citizens. It was not until much later in the long and information dense story that blood-banks were shown to be complicit in allowing infected blood to be sent to patients. It does also mention that intravenous drug users that shared needles also transmitted the agent and yet the main subject matter in this book centres on the homosexual culture.
What struck me as important to take home from this book was the nonchalant attitude towards the disease from the 'mainstream' community. Blaming the outbreak on homosexual behaviour incurring the wrath of God was an acceptable argument in civilised debate. The underlying feelings about homosexuality allowed the disease to be permitted to continue for much longer than it should have done. Not acknowledging it as something worth looking into and continuing as if nothing is happening was the primary response to what in today's world would be a serious threat to global health.
Unless you were homosexual or in a social group that had homosexuals in it, you would not have likely been affected by AIDS in the first years. Only drug users and the occasional transfusion recipient would otherwise be at risk. The illness was seen as a strictly gay disease and no-one was able to empathise with the seemingly alien community. A self-blame attitude seemed to propagate towards anyone who died from it. Only when the numbers of the dead reached several thousand did larger bodies of thought begin to take it seriously.
The work carries a continual undercurrent of righteous anger towards those with the power to affect change an their lack of interest in the situation. The corruption and blind-eyes that seemed to fall to every aspect of the problem from the top made the eventual outcome much worse than it needed to be. A mistrust of homosexuality and authority combined to create a massive void in understanding, care, and responsibility. This led to the tragic and avoidable deaths of millions over the ensuing years. Being woken up to the scale of dereliction of duty by the authorities during this time has made me see the response to Covid19 in a new way. The governments have been much more proactive this time around, with some unpopular mandates being passed and plenty of pushback from unsalted society.
When we compare the two situations, can we draw the conclusion that our governments of today responded adequately to the more recent pandemic? Should we celebrate the progress since only 40 years ago when the woefully inadequate response led to serious consequences for all? Time will tell if what we did in today's situation holds up to the standards laid down by those who come after.
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From the author of Alternative Fruit
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