‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice’ reviewed by Dr Emily Garside

‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice’ by Norman Fowler (Biteback Publishing, 2014)

Aids cover 2.inddAIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice by Norman Fowler draws heavily on the author’s personal experience both at the height of the AIDS crisis and today. As a result there is a fascinating auto-ethnographic slant to the book as Fowler travels across the world reflecting on attitudes to AIDS both within governments, healthcare systems, and society as whole. The book covers some of the biomedical, cultural and political approaches to AIDS which seem rooted in the early days of the epidemic, through to what Fowler proclaims as the model to follow-Australia’s progressive, inclusive approach to AIDS education and HIV treatment.

Fowler’s personal experience colours his approach to the topic at hand. He previously served as Health Secretary to Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet just as the AIDS crisis hit and was consequently responsible for implementing many of the strategies that the British government employed to combat the crisis. This includes the ‘AIDS Don’t Die of Ignorance’ public health campaign from which this book now takes its title. Fowler draws on this experience in the 1980s and refers to wanting to find out what happens worldwide in the present day (p. xii). He prefaces this with a forthright account of his time in politics facing the AIDS crisis, in the chapter ‘AIDS and the Iron Lady’ in which he recalls being told by the Prime Minister that taking on the AIDS crisis was ‘career suicide’ (p. 5). The account of the processes of Thatcher’s government in getting the frank ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign and subsequent preventive health messages through government is a fascinating insight into the competing challenge of the public health crisis that required a swift and thorough address pitted against the ingrained homophobia of the Conservative Government of the time. Fowler could have indeed written an entire book addressing the experience he had with the British Government, and further exposed the handling of AIDS in Britain from ‘the inside’. Instead he chose to use this experience to explore the experience worldwide. He does this with a refreshing frankness and absence of political colouring. The detail on the workings of how such a prominent and controversial public health campaign was approved provides great insight into the workings behind the famous campaign, although he starts and finishes with a reflection of AIDS in Britain in both the past and present, this is one area Fowler could have developed further given his first-hand experience and the auto-ethnographic approach of his work.

Instead, Fowler moves through various socio-political contexts to compare their AIDS policies and attitudes, from the bad to the good. Through Europe, where he focuses on the role of Geneva, and contemporary London to Russia, India, America and Australia Fowler’s work considers each country in context of its history and political background against the response to the AIDS epidemic. This approach offers a unique comparison of AIDS strategies within Western countries, including those at the centre of more established AIDS narratives (such as the UK and USA) alongside the lesser-acknowledged Australian experience. Rather than the re-visiting the widely-discussed case of AIDS in the African continent, Fowler widens our gaze to incorporate India, Russia and Eastern Europe. Including Russia and Eastern Europe within this debate offers particularly valuable insight considering how the AIDS crisis occurred at a time of intense political change in the region. In discussing a wider range of countries than is usually covered in assessments of the worldwide state of HIV/AIDS, combined with the author’s almost ‘travelogue’ like tone, make for a fascinating insight and engaging read. While obviously far from all-encompassing and somewhat brief, this comparative approach gives a sense of a more global outlook and analysis than many HIV/AIDS studies which tend to focus either on the West, specifically the U.S., or the ‘Third World’, which typically focuses on the African continent

This regional breadth also illuminates the experience of minority groups affected by AIDS, including the challenges faced by transgender men and women in India, and a chapter focusing on Mothers affected by HIV in Cape town. In each chapter Fowler infuses his personal experience in the country, and the people he meets, with a reflection in relation to the wider context of their country’s approach to AIDS treatment and awareness. This provides a useful balance between throwing light on the various approaches across the world and a personal engagement that is often missing in political and medical reflections on HIV/AIDS.

Fowler uses what he has witnessed and learned to lay out his thoughts on taking campaigns for HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment forward. He is adamant the direction needed overall towards a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. He compares the AIDS epidemic to polio and makes the case for a vaccine allowing for worldwide eradication. However in the meantime he draws on the variety of campaigns (or lack thereof) in the world and makes the case for universal sex education. The use of the original public health leaflet circulated by Fowler’s own government team serves to emphasise this point. Flawed as aspects of the campaign were (which Fowler himself acknowledges here) the drive for education it promoted remains the basis for Fowler’s recommendations.

Reviewed by Dr Emily Garside, who wrote her PhD on American AIDS theatre in Britain (Cardiff Metropolitan University, 2015). Following an Undergraduate degree in History (Nottingham, 2004) and a Masters in Performance Studies (RADA, 2007) this work combines historical reflection with performance studies. She is currently working for the Creative Industries Research Institute at the University of South Wales. Research interests include HIV/AIDS in theatre/performance, Queer Performance, The National Theatre and British Musical Theatre. Other research includes publications on Iain Banks and Sherlock Holmes. Outside of academia work includes theatre education engagement with a variety of arts centres and a variety of dramaturgical work.



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