32 million died in the AIDS pandemic but our remembrance is pitiful

This is just another example of how the UK chooses to remember its history

Did you know that 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic? That’s more fatalities than World War One. Did you also know that 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2019? As in… two years ago. Yes, that’s right. People are still dying of AIDS. As well as the millions who died years before, because they couldn’t access the support, because we didn’t have the medical knowledge, because it was demonised as a “gay disease”.

It’s A Sin, the new Channel 4 drama centred around the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Britain, has highlighted just how little we knew about AIDS at the time. What it has also unintentionally highlighted is just how little we know now. Or more, just how little we pay attention to it.

Every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the entire country falls silent for two minutes out of respect to the 20 million who died in the First World War. This is of course, completely warranted. You cannot compare tragedies. But you can highlight when one gets paid disproportionately more attention, when, for example, there isn’t even an AIDS memorial statue in London. There are around 6,000 war memorials in London.

The current pandemic, and the numerous memorial statues and traditions that are likely to follow it, only highlights how poor our AIDS remembrance is. Many people in gay communities may be aware of AIDS remembrance day, 1st December, but for the majority of people – especially those in straight communities – the world keeps spinning on this day. There is no two-minute silence, the day is marked more as a celebration of the festive season than as one for remembrance.

The lives lost to Covid will undoubtedly be remembered very prominently in years to come. As is right, because every tragedy deserves to be mourned. But the reality is that mourning for AIDS is smaller because, on the majority, it affected communities which were marginalised and easy to ignore. AIDS disproportionately affects men who sleep with men and Black African communities. You can’t look at that sentence and pretend not to see why AIDS flew under the radar for so long and was allowed to kill so many before it was considered an epidemic, or even something worth looking into. As Jill’s dad says in It’s A Sin: “If heterosexual boys were dying left right and centre, people would be out on the streets.”

The AIDS epidemic is not taught in British schools. Many people will be finding out about its extent for the first time through It’s A Sin. Before that, people were enlightened by Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Pride (2014). This is a choice made by people who want to dedicate their time to absorb this kind of culture. Learning about 32 million people who died should not be a choice. God knows the boomers wouldn’t agree that children should opt out of learning about World War One, so why aren’t we pushing for AIDS to be better understood and respected? Why isn’t there an AIDS memorial in London? Why do schoolkids still joke about AIDS like it didn’t kill millions of helpless people who could have been saved? Because we haven’t been pushing for this remembrance enough. So let’s push now. It may be 40 years on from the beginning of the epidemic, but I can’t think of a better time to start.

You can follow @theaidsmemorial on Instagram and buy an AIDS memorial t-shirt here. You can support the campaign to build a London memorial to those lost to AIDS by following this Twitter account.

Featured image via Channel 4 and World AIDS Day.

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