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Is it a sin, or is it a sign? The lack of response to the HIV/AIDs crisis

In the wake of National HIV Awareness Week, and the release of Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, what parallels can we form between the HIV/AIDs pandemic of the 1980s and today’s Covid-19 pandemic?

Its a Sin is the first British-specific show that tackles the devastating effects of HIV on young people in the 80s.

‘Lies, rumours and misinformation’ is one of the ways Russell T. Davies (writer of It’s a Sin) classifies the similarities between the Covid-19 pandemic and HIV/AIDs crisis. When watching It’s a Sin, the lack of knowledge and rumours that surround ‘the mystery disease’ feel eerily familiar to the period of hysteria before lockdown last March. The pace at which the series spirals from 18-year-olds living their best lives in London to hospital beds and lost hope is rapid and hard hitting. Like March 2020 with Covid-19, the evolution into chaos was sudden and overwhelming.

The devasting effects of Covid-19 have been universal, calling for global and immediate action which contrasts the 1980s, when HIV was predominantly ravaging the gay community. The stigma towards gay men was reflected in government responses to the pandemic, with the immediate reaction being to act as if it didn’t exist. Ronald Reagan, the US president at the time, didn’t mention the word AIDs until 1985 – four years from the onset of the epidemic.

A chilling line from the show, between two of the protagonists, states: ‘there’re boys dying all over the world from sex’ – ‘don’t be ridiculous that would be all over the news’. Covid-19 has definitely marginalised certain groups of people, notably the old and the vulnerable and this has been evident to the public (unlike the HIV/AIDs crisis that was kept under wraps).

Covid-19 has monumentally affected the economy, encouraging actions to be taken to rectify the situation, prioritising this at the peril of those most vulnerable to the disease.

The UK has produced ten years worth of vaccine work in ten months; in spite of marginalisation, the sense of community in the UK has been elevated in numerous ways – the clap for carers, Black Lives Matter protests and the lost hero that, sadly, was Captain Tom, to name a few. Thus, despite the devastation, a sense of community has been created that I believe will be remembered for years to come.

In contrast, HIV remains an illness with no cure, and although patients live out normal lives thanks to medication, it is nonetheless still surrounded by stigma.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is not what can we learn from the HIV/AIDs pandemic but what can we learn from the Covid-19 response? Is it a sin, or is it a sign we need to start talking about it?

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