Forty years ago, on June 5, 1981, the first cases of what became known as AIDS were reported in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the U.S. national public health agency, reported:
“Five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among previously healthy young men in Los Angeles,” in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
All were ‘homosexuals’. Two had died. The cases suggested, “a disease acquired through sexual contact”.
Now at the midpoint of the almost forgotten HIV/AIDS pandemic, 77.5 million people have caught HIV, according to UNAIDS. Of those, 34.7 million have died of AIDS-related illnesses.
We must remember that AIDS is not over. Where is the rage?
HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS if untreated, continues to mostly affect the poor, the marginalised and those with limited access to healthcare worldwide.
Women continue to be disproportionately affected in many parts of the world, often due to their unequal socioeconomic status. Last year, women and girls accounted for 63% of new cases in sub-Saharan Africa. The criminalisation of gay sex in 68 countries negatively affects access testing and treatment.
Out of the 37.6 million people living with HIV today, 27% are at risk of dying unnecessarily, as they are still unable to access life-saving medication. These drugs, when taken regularly, enable people to live long, healthy lives and also stop them passing on HIV to anyone else.
When these figures are so unimaginably huge and happening elsewhere in the world, we can easily forget to differentiate each death as an individual who leaves behind family, friends, lovers and communities.
The world is failing miserably.
HIV/AIDS continues to show up the world’s brutal health inequalities, in the racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny that prevails.
It shamefully reveals how the much-needed battle in the West in the 1980s and 1990s was driven by and focused on the then-dehumanised urban, dying gay men, but never moved on.
We in the West abandoned the fight, exhausted, after we won what we had to for ourselves.
Yet, today, millions still live without hope. Just as we and our loved ones did, before the miraculous awakening of 1996 when a new cocktail of drugs enabled the almost-dead to walk again.
This is why remembering our experiences of HIV/AIDS in the West and respectfully commemorating those who died, who were so stigmatised and abused, is so vital.
If we forget the horrors of AIDS and the deaths, which were nearly always terrible, we also are denying our histories. We are saying that our dehumanisation, in what was a horribly homophobic time, is not shocking enough. And in turn we continue the process of our own dehumanisation.
Out of that era came much good too. There was community, based on solidarity and strength. The struggle forced Western nations to view our lives equally. We can celebrate that.
We have had enough time to rest and recover. So now we must fight on.
You may feel helpless, but there are things we can all do. Everyone can be an activist in their own way. You do not need to throw HIV-positive blood over the walls of drug companies and places of worship.
Let us all rise up and end the work we started as a community. It begins with you. AIDS ends with us.
By Ash Kotak
Ash Kotak is a playwright and film-maker and is executive director of AIDS Memory UK, which is campaigning to establish a national moemorial to HIV/AIDS in Britain