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Denialism: what you refuse to know can kill you

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GEOFF SIFRIN

But in 1993, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, medication wasn’t available, and people everywhere were terrified of being overrun by the virus – like a mysterious octopus associated with gay people.

That was when South African photographer Gideon Mendel went to London’s Middlesex Hospital. He asked to enter a ward treating desperately ill AIDS patients to take pictures of them to help combat the stigma attached to them. Most were young gay men.

Of course, the hospital said no, but after reassurances about sensitivity and confidentiality, and explicit consent from the patients, permission was granted. Mendel was allowed to go into the wards of four dying AIDS patients – John, Ian, Steven, and Andre – and photograph their treatment and ward life. This included the intimate way partners, staff, patients, and families related to each other. They died soon after the pictures were taken, just before medication became available.

Being gay was still frowned on in many places, and aside from the lack of successful medical care, the AIDS stigma was gigantic. Nurses treating patients didn’t tell their own families. AIDS wards in hospitals were hidden. This went as far as the plaque marking Princess Diana’s opening of the AIDS ward at Middlesex Hospital being covered by a painting.

In an attempt to penetrate the wall of silence, in the United States in 1987, a gigantic AIDS quilt was shown on the National Mall in Washington DC, created from panels with names of people who had died of AIDS. Many funeral homes refused to handle their remains.

Now, 25 years later, Mendel has assembled a poignant collection of those photographs in a book called The Ward. Its cover picture shows a grief-stricken, healthy man draping himself over and kissing the lips of his sick male friend lying in a hospital bed. You can tell from their body language that they had once had a joyful, loving life together. It is heartbreaking.

Attitudes have changed and the furore seems alien now, with antiretrovirals allowing HIV-positive people to live full, healthy lives. But in 1993, it took nerve to do what Mendel did.

December 1 is still called World AIDS Day.

What’s the lesson for us today? The AIDS denialism of those days is similar in its impact to today’s climate-change denialism. Leaders of the most powerful countries, such as US President Donald Trump and leaders in India and China, continue to behave as if there’s lots of time, while the earth shakes.

Our future is bleak unless major action is taken urgently on climate change. Already, the seas are warming, and the icecaps are melting. Scientists hope we can limit the rise in global temperature to only 1.5 degrees, rather than the two degrees that would eventually kill us all. Global greenhouse gas emissions must be at zero by mid-century.

We need climate change activists of the sort who tackled AIDS, or most of the planet’s civilisations are doomed and the Gideon Mendels of the future will come and photograph the ruins.

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