I’ve just finished reading How To Survive A Plague by David French. It’s a book about the AIDS crisis and the activist groups, notably ACT UP!, who fought an incredible battle against prejudice, ignorance and inertia.
Many of the cover quotes describe the book as uplifting, but that’s not a word I’d use: it’s a deeply harrowing read, and while it has a happy ending of sorts – it finishes at the point where retroviral therapies mean that infection was no longer a death sentence – it’s a book about deaths on a truly horrific scale.
The US CDC reckons that 675,000 people in the US died during the epidemic, and that 13,000 more die from it every year. The World Health Organisation says that globally, AIDS has killed around 33 million people.
The book is an ensemble piece, and it’s not a spoiler to say that many of the key characters in it don’t make it to the end.
It’s instructive to read this book during another global health crisis, and inevitably there are strong parallels between AIDS and COVID-19 – not least the lack of action by particular governments, especially right-wing ones, and misinformation and ill-informed speculation in the press. But it wasn’t just incompetence in the case of AIDS. It was effectively manslaughter. One of the reasons the AIDS crisis was so devastating is that too many people in power simply didn’t care, even when the scale of the crisis was apparent.
A key statistic in the book notes that at the beginning of the crisis, 80% of Americans claimed they’d never met a gay person. That unfamiliarity bred contempt.
As far as many politicians, religious leaders and newspaper editors were concerned, gay men’s lives didn’t matter and weren’t worth saving. The book is about the US, but this was true of the UK too: our press, politicians and religious leaders were often just as hateful (and it’s jarring to see some of the most outspokenly anti-gay publications of the time, such as The Sunday Times, providing glowing quotes on the cover). That intolerance contributed to inaction, and even when sums were pledged to fight the disease they were far too little for far too long.
I have a lot of thoughts about the book and the story it told, but at the moment they’re too emotional for a blog post: How To Survive A Plague was a deeply upsetting read that’s left me angry as well as sad.
I was a teenager during the AIDS crisis, and I remember the public safety campaign: “AIDS. Don’t die of ignorance.” And people did die of ignorance; the ignorance and intolerance of the powerful. So many people have so much blood on their hands.