I was in Sydney, Australia, when I first heard about HIV and AIDS, in the early ’80s.
Eurythmics were riding high on the upswing of a world tour when the news of mysterious killer virus hit the world headlines. With the sobering pieces of information, it looked as if “sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll” might have to be done a little differently. “Good times” for the boys in the band might have to be curtailed!
I don’t believe that anyone could have foreseen or imagined the terrible narrative that would span over three decades. Back then the story of the impending epidemic would have appeared to be the implausible imaginings of a dark science fiction film. Tragically, for millions of men, women, and children across the globe, “real life” has been played out with appalling consequences.
The first person I met who was living with the virus was the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. We had been set to work together on the Red Hot + Blue project. (The recording, the first in the Red Hot Benefit series, featured a variety of contemporary pop performers reinterpreting a selection of songs by Cole Porter. Released in 1990, it sold over a million copies worldwide and was one of the first major AIDS benefits in the music business.)
Unfortunately, Derek became unwell and had to be hospitalized just before we were about to start our collaboration. A few days later, I visited him in St. Mary’s Paddington and listened quietly as he described how he had struggled to get himself across the zebra crossing to the main admissions door after discovering that his eyesight had almost completely disappeared overnight.
I realized then that a person living with HIV could be subjected to any kind of unpredictable health challenge at any unpredictable time. Like most people, I assumed that HIV and AIDS mainly affected the gay community, sex workers, or drug users. For some reason I was less aware of the millions of women and children whose lives were being destroyed. That bubble of ignorance was soundly burst after my first trip to South Africa, a country where one in three pregnant women is carrying the virus.
Back then in 2003, President Mbeki and his health minister at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who drew international condemnation for encouraging AIDS patients to use beetroot, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil to stop the advance of the disease), had taken the firm “denialist” stance while hundreds of thousands of South African citizens were literally dying before they could access treatment. Since then, due to the dedicated work of thousands of individuals and organizations, things have changed, and certain things have improved, but there is still so much more to be done.
I am very well aware of the complexities faced in the challenge to responding effectively to the AIDS pandemic, but if support for change is withdrawn and budgets are cut back, then the three steps of progress forward will be rapidly turned into two steps back. For me, this is something unimaginable.