These days HIV/AIDS, while still a serious condition, isn’t (at least in the developed world) the death sentence it once was. Combination therapy means that it can be effectively managed for many years, so it’s easy to be complacent and forget how terrifying the epidemic was in the 80s and early 90s when millions died from a disease that seemed almost untreatable “ a genuine modern plague.
Nowhere was this fear more prevalent than in New York’s Greenwich Village “ the epicentre of gay culture in the US. But there were many people who weren’t prepared to just wait for what seemed to be the inevitable. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed “ a group committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.
ACT UP were convinced that George Bush (Sr)’s regime was not providing sufficient funding to tackle the crisis, and that the health agencies were dragging their feet when it came to clinical trials and getting potentially lifesaving drugs onto the market. So they did something about it. Through a mixture of home videos, news reports, interviews and archive footage, How To Survive A Plague tells the story of the group and their efforts to save their own lives as well as the lives of millions of others.
The work of ACT UP has become almost a template for protest groups to follow to achieve their goals. They swiftly developed a plan of action, gathered consensus amongst members for how they were going to protest, and got to work. With their diverse membership represented, they were able to use their range of skills to good effect “ there’s interesting footage of an ex-newscaster providing on the spot media training to make sure the message got across. A retired scientist gave lectures on the science behind AIDS. They quickly grew incredibly knowledgeable about the issues so they could argue their case against officials at the highest level.
Of course, there were numerous setbacks along the way, as drugs they had huge hopes for didn’t meet their promise, politicians failed to act, members became ill and died, and the group splintered as arguments broke out over priorities.
One aspect that is shocking is the apathy at high level about the issue “ with church officials and even some senators implying that essentially, the gay community had brought it on themselves through their behaviour. The level of homophobia on display in some of the TV footage of the time is extraordinary and appalling. Despite this, in the end, How To Survive a Plague is an amazingly inspirational story, as the pressure applied by ACT UP and other groups directly led to breakthroughs in treatments, and many of their members, speaking in present day interviews express their amazement at even being alive to reflect on the battle. However, there is no triumphalism “ the victory being marred by the number of friends they lost along the way.