'After Aids' is an armchair game with no winners

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE while ago, it was announced that the figures for cot deaths were down by roughly half, after a bereaved celebrity had lent her weight to an advertising campaign. Nobody then found it hard to understand that the campaign of awareness and reduced mortality were linked.

Yet now, both in journalism (Bryan Appleyard's article on these pages, 21 April) and in government policy as reflected in the funding of voluntary agencies, the slightest hint that the Aids figures have reached a a plateau - though plateau is hardly the word, when what is meant is the slight bottoming out of a still deepening trench of mortality - is used as evidence that the epidemic is in some sense over, no longer a priority.

It would be handy at this point to contrast the continued funding of a cot deaths campaign with the cuts to be visited, for instance, on the Terrence Higgins Trust (amounting to 65 per cent in the next three years), except that funding has been withdrawn from the cot deaths campaign, too. A bit of a blow for minority rhetoric, that. But it does seem extraordinary that a government sufficiently concerned about Aids a few years ago to thrust an information pack through every letter box in the land should be too shy to take credit for slowing down the juggernaut.

That was the idea, wasn't it, to slow down rates of infection, or did I miss something? This would be a good time, surely, to say: 'See how efficiently we spent your money, on preventive medicine, where the bargains are.' Or would that just make it ridiculous to be economising now? The logic seems to be: if our actions have made a difference, then the alarm must have been false.

Aids is not a false alarm. Aids is not death on a pale horse. It's only a bug, but it isn't a bug to be lightly dismissed. Bryan Appleyard offers some quotations from 1986, supposedly the boom year for apocalyptic rhetoric. Did Peter Jenkins really describe Aids as 'perhaps the greatest peacetime challenge to government in our lifetime'? Well if Aids isn't, what is? I can't help feeling I've read wilder claims on the backs of cereal packets.

Certainly government action, which in the nature of things has had to be prompted by voluntary organisations, can make a difference to the spread of HIV. In France, for instance, where there is little tradition of gay activism, it was hard in the early days of the epidemic to get people interested in community projects along the lines of Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York or the Terrence Higgins Trust in London.

The French seemed to be mad keen on seminars and conferences with subjects such as Death and Discourse, less quick on the uptake when it came to doing the shopping and cleaning for people who couldn't do it for themselves. This little cultural blind spot, this habit of regarding the body as an intellectual subject, may have something to do with the fact that France now has Aids figures four times as high as Britain's.

Did Jeremy Paxman really refer to the epidemic, way back in 1986, as 'the greatest threat to public health since the bubonic plague'? Seems like a sensible man. But perhaps the phrase 'public health' is beginning to have an antique ring. The idea of public health can, in fact, be traced back to the time when it was realised that juries - and, more to the point, judges - could be infected by the diseases of those appearing before them. Suddenly it was possible to realise that 'jail fever' was not a moral emanation of the criminal classes, but something to do with the physical conditions in which people were held before trial. Improving prison conditions became a priority.

Such lessons are forever being forgotten and relearnt. (At the moment, for instance, we have in Britain an overcrowded prison population which is denied access to condoms.) Disease will take advantage of the distinctions we make among ourselves, and the conditions in which we make each other live, without being bound by them.

If it pleases us to think that Aids is a disease of the poor - poor people and poor countries - Aids will continue to ravage the poor, but without letting up on the rich. It is worth remembering, in the case of a preventable illness whose prevention depends on individual assessments of risk, that there is no group so reckless as the children of the rich.

There is nothing wrong with wanting Aids to be over. Everyone wants Aids to be over. But if you reach for the fast-forward button in the middle of an epidemic, it begins to look as if you hadn't realised that it was happening in real time, that it was not just another video nasty.

A strange kind of psychological denial is becoming widespread. It's not: I can't cope with it, so I'll pretend it's not happening, but: I can't cope with it, so I'll pretend it's already in the past, and I've learnt all its lessons, what it all meant. The easy part.

How much easier to declare yourself post-modern than to deal with modernity, how much easier to be post-feminist than feminist. Easiest of all to play the armchair game of post-Aids. Except that Aids is far from over. Even if rates of infection begin to slow in certain places, among certain groups, there is more Aids in the future than in the past. We are not after Aids. We aren't even after cot deaths.