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Die In AIDS World Day London
Photography Holly Buckle

Why these protestors staged a mass die-in on World AIDS Day

‘Tories = Death’

Anyone familiar with the theatrical protests held by the activist group ACT UP would have had deja vu if they passed through Trafalgar Square at 7.30 am on December 1 2022, also World AIDS Day

Almost 100 bodies lay on the ground as though dead, holding tombstones reading slogans like “Tories = Death” and “Cuts = Coffins” as well as flowers. They shouted the original ACT UP chant: “ACT UP, Fight Back, Fight AIDS”.

The protest aimed to draw attention to the fact that, in 2022, the UK government is still failing to adequately tackle the ongoing AIDS crisis and provide adequate care to people with chronic health conditions – many of whom are living in poverty and facing lengthy NHS wait times. 

First formed in New York in the 1980s in response to government inaction over the AIDS crisis, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) staged die-ins to make visible to the media, the public and the state how their collective inaction was leading to the rampant loss of lives from AIDS-related illness. The group and their global divisions came to be associated with the die-in protest method (more recently used by BLM) by staging them in cities around the world, from San Francisco to Paris. 

ACT UP London, the UK’s branch of the activist group, has been re-active since 2014, but AIDS activists first held a die-in at Trafalgar Square back in June 1989, when Margaret Thatcher’s government were threatening to close an AIDS Ward at Middlesex Hospital. Later, on World AIDS Day 1992, ACT UP campaigners brought erected a 17ft condom to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to raise awareness around safer sex. 

30 years on from these original protests, HIV is no longer a death sentence, but some forms of progress are rolling back. In 2021, the UK was the only country that cut one-third of funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, jeopardising global efforts to end HIV, while most G7 countries increased their contributions. 

ACT UP activists believe this represents a wider “head in the sand” approach to the current UK situation regarding HIV. In 2021 alone, there were just under 3000 new HIV diagnoses made in the UK – a number likely much smaller than the actual number of new cases. For the first time in a decade, heterosexual diagnoses are now higher than gay and bisexual men, with late diagnosis rates higher among women. Reports have also shown that the Conservative government’s “hostile environment” approach to migration makes access to services difficult for migrants living with HIV.

As the speakers on the mic at the protest also pointed out, in 2022, PrEP – pre-exposure drugs that can prevent the chance of HIV transmission by 99 per cent if taken correctly – could play a significant role in mitigating the spread of HIV within high-risk groups. However, a recent survey found that PrEP access is failing in the UK, with a 2022 online survey of over 1,100 people who tried to get an appointment to access PrEP at sexual health clinics in England finding that 57 per cent waited more than 12 weeks. 

“I contracted HIV in 2018 because the government did not want to make PrEP available on the NHS in England,” says Cornelis Rineveld, a PhD student who took part in the ACT UP protest. “PrEP has now been rolled out, but over half of people wait more than twelve weeks before they can access it because sexual health services are overstretched and under-resourced. This means people like me who want to and could easily be safe from HIV are contracting HIV,” says Cornelius. The authors of the recent study suggest PrEP eligibility requirements should be changed in favour of wider risk-based criteria to allow easier access for vulnerable groups. 

While PrEP is a more recent development, anti-retroviral drugs have been around since 1996 as a treatment for people living with HIV. Those on these drugs can have a viral load that is undetectable, meaning they’re also untransmittable – unable to pass the virus to another person. But ACT UP activists say the message of “undetectable = untransmittable” is still not widely spread, with public understanding low.

“We are armed with the tools to fight HIV and to massively slow down and halt further infections but this is being severely hampered by government austerity and cuts, the closure of sexual health clinics and services for people living with HIV,” says ACT UP activist Andria Mordaunt, whose life partner was diagnosed with HIV in the 80s. 

Mordaunt joined the original die-in in Trafalgar Square in 1989. The idea of replicating the protest in the same location was to send out the message that “it was definitely a nod to the past and a warning about repeating it,” she says. “Sexual health education for young people is wholly inadequate and there is still, after 40 years, a huge stigma around HIV. We are here today to let this government know we will not sit by and watch this happen.”

Overall, says Dan Glass, from ACT UP London, the group wanted to show that they stand in wider solidarity with those in austerity and affected by a crumbling NHS under Tories. It was also a “fuck you” to the proposed Tory anti-protest bill, he adds. 

“Through the ‘Police, Crime and Sentencing’ Act, it is the law today that tries to stop us protesting, so we are protesting against the Government that caused this! Of course, we are. When is enough, enough? When do we realise the law is unjust and take to the streets?”

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