Words by Dani Singer
The first time I marked World AIDS Day was in 2015. If you’d told me even a month before that I’d be spending that evening in a gay bar in east London, draped in a frilly housecoat, throwing myself into a pile of sequined bodies at the feet of a Harry Styles cardboard cut-out, and that this was a completely legitimate way to mark World AIDS day, I’d probably have told you to lay off the Buckfast. But so it was that World AIDS Day 2015 was spent crotch-pack deep in HIV Blind Date, an event trailblazed by ACT UP London (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) – my first official engagement with them, after they had quietly reformed in January 2014, having been on hiatus since the late ‘90s, when the widespread introduction of anti-retroviral treatment for HIV and AIDS halted the deaths from the virus (in 1999, the World Health Organization estimated that 14 million people worldwide had died since the start of the epidemic around twenty years before). But In 2015, diagnoses in the UK were still well on the up, and attitudes towards those living with the disease had barely changed since the 1990s.
Just two years on, the picture in the UK has altered somewhat – with the slow introduction of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) across various clinics in the UK, increased awareness of the modern reality of living with HIV, and widespread testing publicity campaigns, for the firsts time since the start of the HIV Epidemic, we’ve seen a decrease in diagnoses amongst the MSM community (Men who have Sex with Men) in the UK. So, on that positive news, ACT UP London and all the other tireless campaigners for HIV and AIDS related causes are all enjoying a well earnt pat on the back, and booking our winter holidays somewhere warm and devoid of politics.
Whilst the statistics paint a somewhat rosy picture, they are the tip of a very imbalanced and questionable iceberg of government cuts, mainstream ignorance, and an increasing lack of provision for those living with HIV. If we have seen any improvements it is down to the efforts of a small number of people taking the initiative, through campaigns like Prepster, and the concerted efforts of a few sexual health clinics, like London’s 56 Dean Street as well as other HIV organizations. Earlier this year, it was revealed that between 2015/16 and 2016/17, government cuts to HIV services across England and Wales averaged at 28% – significantly higher than the decrease in new diagnoses and meaning that for those already living with the disease, your range of support options has just narrowed by over a quarter. Even in London where we have more services than anywhere else in the country, this is taking a massive toll.
Earlier this year, St George’s Hospital in Tooting lost the funding for its thirty-year old Sexual Health Clinic, in a money-saving move branded “unsafe, unworkable and unsustainable,” and not clinically safe by fourteen doctors writing to NHS England in protest. The clinic’s closure came as part of the ‘streamlining’ of services across London and Hertfordshire, under the Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust (CLCH). Dig a little deeper and it the motive for this move soon becomes clear; in 2015, CLCH announced that it was forming a “strategic partnership” with Capita, “the UK’s leading provider of business process management and integrated professional support service solutions,” resulting in expected profits of £80m over ten years for the firm, and “significant budget savings to the CLCH.” And with Capita under scrutiny for potential tax evasion since as early as 2011, it doesn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to sniff out an ulterior motive for this money saving move, just a small scratch in the surface of the insidious, increasingly flimsy façade masking the privatisation of our NHS.
The implications of this are more than this brief article can hope to contain, so I urge you to do your own research and talk to the doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, cleaners, and everyone else on the front line, facing the reality of a healthcare system geared towards driving down services for the sake of a profit; your findings may help you to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article – why am I heading to Downing Street on an open top bus this World AIDS Day?
Far from being a tourist jolly, this is the Bang Bus, and it’s driven by a hunger for social justice, and a need for agitation. The Bang Bus is the brainchild of ‘Queer Tours of London – A Mince Through Time’, a community driven, education-based response to the continued oppression and ostracization of the LGBTI+ community right here in the UK. Draped with oversized banners instructing passers-by to “f*ck with the NHS over my dead body,” warning of the horrors of death by “Tories – don’t die of ignorance,” (a sardonic nod to a widespread anti-AIDS campaign in 1987), amongst other anti-establishment gems, the World AIDS Day Bang Bus is simultaneously a celebration of the power of the LGBTI+ community, and of our input into changing the course of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a scathing rejection of current Tory ‘austerity’ politics.
With contributions from ‘80s pop stars, former AIDS-ward nurses and young campaigners, The World AIDS Day Bang Bus Tour will take the message to Downing Street, and across the capital that we are sick not with HIV, but with Tory greed, and – in the words of ACT UP New York all those years ago – we will never be silent again. Get your BANG BUS tickets here!