Clear and consistent messaging about how best to protect yourself is key and this government has not delivered eitherby Jack Kessler / September 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
“Gay men have as much use for condoms as they do tampons,” was a joke you might have heard in the 1970s. For Jonathan Blake, one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV, it quickly ceased being funny.
“I wanted to have sex but I had to stop—I didn’t want to infect anyone,” Blake recalls. While he abstained, his friends started to wear condoms. The behavioural change forced upon gay and bisexual men as a result of the Aids pandemic is remarkable both for its speed and scale. Prior to 1980, only 10 per cent of gay and bisexual men used condoms. By 1987, this had jumped to 78 per cent, according to one study.
The similarities between Aids and Covid-19 can be overdone. The two viruses are transmitted differently, and symptoms for the coronavirus materialise far faster than that of Aids. But where the comparison is most instructive is in thinking about the way in which condoms rapidly became a crucial pillar in the fight against HIV and Aids, and what lessons we can learn today as we seek to halt the transmission of Covid-19 through the widespread adoption of face coverings.
Perhaps the first thing to remember is that the success of Aids and condom campaigns had to be fought for, both by LGBT groups and certain politicians. Norman Fowler, who as Health Secretary at the time was widely credited for the UK government’s activist response, remembers having to fight or in some cases avoid Margaret Thatcher to ensure that government advice was as explicit and direct as possible.
“The prime minister wasn’t very keen on the language and detail we were going into… but we were able to manoeuvre past her,” Fowler says. “The result is we saved many lives because people took note.”
Boris Johnson’s reticence about face masks appears to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps. Rather than a prudishness about sex, Johnson is – or at least likes to think of himself as – temperamentally hostile to nanny-statism. This can be seen in his reliance on “good, solid British common sense” to combat the spread of Covid-19. But leadership, particularly in times of crisis, does involve telling people what to do and not to do. And such a belief overlooks the cornerstone of the Aids campaign’s success: clarity…