Shame on the professional Aids doubters

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The Independent Online
ABOUT a decade ago, I was stopped in the street by a man I had known intermittently for some years, who proceeded to deliver a long and carefully phrased compliment about some work I had done. He was so generous that I could hardly reply, I was so surprised. And as soon as he had finished, the man hurried away - scuttled away, in fact, as if he had just dumped some bawling baby in my arms.

A long time afterwards, I began to understand the incident. The man was one of the earliest British Aids victims. At the time he spoke, he must have known he was soon going to die, and he must, I suppose, have decided that, in the time left to him, he would express himself as unequivocally as possible, whenever the occasion arose. That was why the compliment had been so surprisingly and fully expressed.

When, a few months ago, Holly Johnson, the former lead singer in Frankie Goes to Hollywood, was told that he was HIV-positive, among the first things he felt was panic about what the media would make of it. He told the Times he was sure that the attitude would be that he had received his comeuppance. So his panic took the form of a fear of shame.

Shame has its history. In the world described by the Gospels, sickness was associated with sin. Nobody could be cured unless his sins were forgiven. This ancient Jewish doctrine remained alive, but not necessarily active, in the Christian tradition. So it was not altogether surprising that fundamentalist Christians in the United States should declare that Aids was a divine punishment for sodomy.

This may have contributed to the atmosphere of shame surrounding the illness, but it does not explain it. Shame is, after all, irrational. Some early Aids victims might have felt, perhaps, that they had been 'outed' by the disease, but this does not cover the case of flagrant homosexuals who had the same sense of shame.

By his own account, Holly Johnson grew up flagrant well before he became homosexual, and you might well think that he had long since said goodbye to shame. It appears that what he feared was that the song 'Relax' would be held against him, as having argued for gay promiscuity. But I doubt that the song itself had any great influence on people's sexual habits, just as I doubt that the subsequent hit, 'Welcome to the Pleasure Dome', contributed to a revival of interest in Romantic poetry.

Still, the idea that the understanding attitude towards Aids sufferers has been taken too far is current. In the last week alone I have read three articles to this effect, two by doctors. Dr Gordon Stewart, a former adviser on Aids to the World Health Organisation, expressed exasperation in the Daily Mail that 'every time an avowedly homosexual or bisexual rock or film star dies of the disease, he is elevated to a martyr or hero'.

And yet he says: 'It is an unpalatable and unpopular fact, seldom articulated, that those who die of Aids have, like smokers who die of lung cancer or heart disease, facilitated their own death. In spite of this, governments, charities, drug companies and research agencies continue to plough millions into the Aids machine.'

Dr Anthony Daniels, in the Daily Telegraph, argues along the same lines and also uses the parallel with lung cancer. But until this moment I don't think I have heard people say that, for example, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund is the undeserving recipient of charity. Nor would one expect sufferers from, say, skin cancer to be described as 'having contributed to their downfall' by excessive sunbathing.

When people come into hospital with lung cancer, common decency dictates that lectures about their past lives end, however stern the lectures about their future lives may be. Nor should funds for cancer research be affected by the perceived moral character of the cancer in question.

Of course, in the case of the early sufferers from HIV, such as my acquaintance, there was no question of contributing to one's own downfall in any conscious sense, since nothing was known about the virus when they contracted it. They are in the same position as millions today who are at risk without knowing it because their education isn't up to it, or those who have been deliberately misled (as in the case of children tricked into prostitution).

Dr Stewart, a professor of public health, believes that too much money is being allocated to Aids research, on the grounds that there have been only 7,000 cases in the UK up to now, as opposed to a once-predicted 40,000 by 1992. The feared epidemic 'appears to have evaporated into thin air'.

Dr Daniels, a general practitioner, feels that the British have a national propensity to sentimentality which makes us seek Little Nells to weep over, instead of laughing at them, as Oscar Wilde said we should. In other words, when a star falls victim to Aids, we fall victim to bad taste.

I must say that although I admire and depend upon members of the medical profession as a class, I have always found them, as individuals, to be a bit of a moral lottery. Dr Daniels, for instance, has a nerve in calling Oscar Wilde to his side. I thing Wilde would have been able to distinguish between a piece of bad writing and an actual dying human being, even if a GP can't.

Dr Stewart parades his triumph in having predicted a decade ago a figure remarkably close to the 7,000 UK Aids cases to date. And yet he says that the fears which led to higher predictions were legitimate at the time. So why shouldn't he be pleased if the higher prediction was taken

seriously?

Most of us watch what the doctors say - their conflicting opinions - and shudder and wait for the true situation to become clearer. We do not deplore the sympathy the celebrity victims have received - it makes a better atmosphere all round. It undermines the shame. And we do not deplore the funds spent on research. It is these deplorers we deplore - they seem to feel their time has come.

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