Monkeypox: Is History Repeating Itself?
Anyone can catch monkeypox, but the virus’s current outbreak in the UK and US is mainly affecting gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. “I’ve become really good at compartmentalising – it was part of my survival mechanism,” says Ron Goldberg, whose book Boy With The Bullhorn: A Memoir And History Of Act Up New York details his time in the titular Aids activist group between 1987 and the mid-’90s. “But the fact that monkeypox is affecting the gay community… are gay people going to be vilified again?”
Given that monkeypox – declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation – arrived during another pandemic, one might have expected a response of preparedness from government and health organisations. But not only was the US government slow to acknowledge the outbreak, vaccine rollouts globally, to this day, have also been disastrous, with thousands of doses lost, stored and shipped improperly, and limited appointments snatched up in seconds.
“The UK Health Security Agency didn’t communicate well to community leaders,” adds Greg Owen, an activist and the co-founder of I Want PrEP Now, an organisation that advocates for people to have a pill that protects them from HIV. “We’re the first line of defence and contact for the wider community, so when we’re not hearing anything except very sterile messaging, you presume the worst.”
“It seems like there is this deliberate refusal to learn from things that just happened,” says Caleb LoSchiavo, a public health researcher and PhD candidate at Rutgers School of Public Health.
The global response has led to comparisons between the monkeypox outbreak and the HIV/Aids crisis, which was also initially met with silence by medical bodies and governments. The messaging around monkeypox, Owen says, has been similarly muddled: “This isn’t a gay disease, but at the same time, you’ve got to target the people who are being affected.
“You have to ask yourself why the response to Covid was so quick and how we got to mass vaccination within a year,” he adds. “If monkeypox was a health condition that disproportionately affected cis, white middle-class straight men, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Perhaps most galling of all? At the time of press, the WHO reported that no vaccines have been provided to countries in Africa, the only continent in which monkeypox is endemic. “It’s racism,” says LoSchiavo. “The urgency around monkeypox [should] translate to care being made more available in these areas, but I don’t expect that will happen.”
Goldberg sees monkeypox illuminating wider health inequalities in the LGBTQIA+ communities globally. “In New York, they’ve been trying to get vaccines into neighbourhoods populated by people of colour because those communities don’t always have the same access to health care,” he says. “But who’s going to those vaccine appointments? White men who can take time off work to go.”
Having been through this before, LGBTQIA+ people won’t allow a repeat of the marginalisation the community faced during the height of the Aids crisis. Act Up NY has taken to the streets to demand better health care provisions and emergency safety net funds for those who test positive, while other community members have flooded social media with up-to-date information about vaccine appointments. “It’s amazing,” Goldberg says, “but the fact that we still have to do it? I wish it were otherwise.”
Alim Kheraj is a freelance writer and host of the podcast Queer Spaces. His first book Queer London is a guide to LGBTQIA+ London, past and present