Growing up in the 80s I really had no awareness of the spread of Aids in America. One of my first memories of hearing about Aids was in science class at school where my teacher Mr Marble told everyone that it’s the gays who were responsible for spreading this disease. It was only during my teenage years in the 90s when I came out and befriended other gay people that I became more knowledgeable about the virus. It’s a sad fact that some of the people I was closest to in my younger years are now HIV+. With an estimated 35 million people having died from Aids and another 37 million people currently living with it, this is something which affects everyone but particularly people in the gay community. I was aware that for many years there was a huge stigma attached to it and I saw the documentary by the same name as this book, but only now having read David France’s masterful nonfiction book “How to Survive a Plague” do I fully comprehend what a courageous few activists and scientists did to help educate the public, change the policies of the government and pharmaceutical industry and bring together an afflicted community overrun by fear.
David France is a journalist who arrived in New York City at the end of the 70s just as the virus was starting to rapidly spread in the gay community. In this book he gives a detailed and comprehensive account of the spread of Aids and the way it affected society. He does this through many personal stories of doctors, activists, politicians, businessmen, researchers and HIV+ individuals which bring their struggle to life as they combat a system gripped by prejudice. It’s truly shocking how the institutionalized homophobia of the government and community leaders showed a blatant indifference to the thousands of gay men infected with HIV across the country who died over the course of the 1980s. France makes it vividly apparent how this led to innumerable personal tragedies from people who hid their status until their deaths to people so terrified of contracting HIV they became celibate: “In countless ways, survival, unexpected as it was, proved as hard to adjust to as the plague itself.” But he also shows how this galvanized parts of the community to come together to literally fight for their lives (albeit with many disagreements along the way).
France recounts how Reagan and his government maintained a shocking level of silence about Aids for many years. It was only when the actor Rock Hudson and an anemic boy who received an HIV+ blood transfusion went public about their status that the country at large started to take real notice and action about Aids. But, even then, an insufficient amount of money, time and expertise was being applied to combat it. It’s horrifying the lack of funding given to Aids research, care and prevention because of institutionalized prejudices. For instance, the negligence of mayor of NYC Ed Koch meant that “In the thirty months of plague, a time in which 1,340 New Yorkers were diagnosed and 773 were already gone, Koch had spent just $24,500 on AIDS. In the same time frame, San Francisco had allocated and spent more than $4 million on care and prevention.” Across the country policy was being shaped by the stigma attached to the disease and prejudices against gay people: “In 1985, twenty states debated legislation for quarantining or otherwise controlling people with AIDS and suspected carriers.” This book really makes it apparent how the institutional response set an example which turned people against trying to understand the disease and the gay community. It led to rampant homophobia which condemned huge groups of people who were already painfully suffering.
It was only through the concerted action from some of the people cited in “How to Survive a Plague” that society at large began treating people afflicted with Aids with compassion rather than scorn. In some instances, France recorded verbatim rousing speeches in public forums which came from a place of passionate personal emotion as much as from a place of clear-sighted truth about the outlandish bigotry of the system. This includes a heartrending and inspiring speech by Darrell Yates Rist which he delivered at a town hall meeting at a Methodist church in Greenwich Village. I know that his words are going to stick with me.
David France’s powerful and emotional book not only pays rightful tribute to the heroic acts of people who cared for those affected by Aids, but sets a benchmark for how we should all be active and engaged citizens. Have a look at this article to see why we still need to be vocal about combating Aids. Given the new conservative governments we’ll be living under in both America, Britain and other parts of the world, it’s more important than ever that we learn how to engage our politicians and decision-makers to look out for the welfare of all people – particularly those afflicted with Aids. Please don’t be intimidated by the length of this book; it’s relentlessly engaging on many levels. “How to Survive a Plague” reveals an incredibly important part of our history that should never be forgotten.