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The film How to Survive a Plague by a journalist David France explores the history of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. The movie follows the lives of AIDS activists and HIV positive people. The film also shows how the government treated these people and the epidemic. Act Up activists are the main focus of this movie as it shows their fight for HIV positive people. The epidemic was ignored for many years, and the medicine for infected people was not safe for them. This paper aims to outline how different groups treated the AIDS epidemic and find different strategies that Act Up activists used to reach their goals.
People viewed the AIDS epidemic differently. Some groups, including many individuals that worked in government, saw infected people as individuals that we’re guilty of a crime. They thought that people with AIDS were the ones that spread the disease and that they did not deserve to get treatment. The government proposed to use a drug, called AZT, which was dangerous for many people due to being toxic and even causing blindness (France). At that time, that drug was the only way of treating HIV infection. Moreover, the police treated activists and their doings as acts of violent behavior. Protests were stopped, and activists were arrested.
The media started to give coverage to this problem when the activists decided to demand the government to develop new drugs or to change the process of AIDS drug approval. The journalists focused on filming riots and talking to activists. Several programs talked about the possibility of creating new medicines. As can be seen in the movie, various news stations asked activists to participate in their programs as guests. However, during these shows, the activists were asked about celibacy thinking that gays and lesbians did not need to have sex. In their minds as in the minds of many people, the problem could be solved if gay people just stopped having relationships. Thus, they did not view the epidemic as a real one.
After the number of victims grew, the journalists started to talk about the problem of HIV more often. The programs, however, tried to show many sides of the conflict, often using religious claims. For example, they reported that the Catholic church continued to push against the use of condoms and talked about people dying mentally and not physically. It is safe to assume that religious groups did not want the infected people to participate in the activities of the church. The movie shows conflicts between Act Up activists and church officials. Various religious activists acted aggressively and violently against HIV positive people and their supporters.
The Act Up activists devised multiple strategies to bring people’s attention to the AIDS crisis. First of all, they asked for a new treatment to be created. The treatment that existed then was dangerous and expensive. The activists urged to find new ways of treating infected people. These people mostly tried to reach the government and researchers with peaceful and not peaceful protests. It is possible that the activist’s main focus was to spread the information and let more people know about the epidemic. According to Wright, the AIDs activists tried to battle the stigma that was placed on them by society (1788). Their actions often involved projects that were aimed at educating other people about their problems. They went on the TV to talk about the victims and the lack of treatment. As a result, new therapies started to appear in the country. The activists tried to interfere with political and religious gatherings, created slogans and banners and gathered around government buildings and quarters of pharmaceutical companies.
The main advantage of the Act Up activists’ strategy is its ability to attract attention. Their open activism made journalists and newscasters talk about the epidemic and show its victims. Act Up’s efforts also reached various researchers and medical professionals, who later joined the group to spread scientific data and explain different concepts to people. Later, the activists changed their strategy and chose to use the media in other ways. For example, they started to publish reports and hold conferences to reach the public. This approach was less aggressive and more scientifically driven. However, the scope of these gatherings and papers might have been less effective.
On the other hand, Act Up’s activity also had some negative effects. Activists’ riots were met with aggression from religious groups, who started to oppose gay and lesbian relationships more violently. Some expert claim-makers tried to argue with AIDS activists as well.
Moreover, these strategies had many limitations. They could not reach the majority of people because of the activists’ sexual orientation. It was hard for them to appeal to the general public. Moreover, the riots could be regarded as less effective than civil debates by some politicians that tried to portray Act Up as criminals. However, the approaches of activists included many aspects. Chan states that the strategy of Act Up is now called “inside-outside” for its complex structure (211). The political activity of some supporters and HIV positive people reached many people and brought the necessary attention to the problem.
Chan, Jennifer. Politics in the Corridor of Dying: AIDS activism and global health governance. JHU Press, 2015.
France, David, director. How to Survive a Plague. Public Square Films, 2012.
Wright, Joe. “Only Your Calamity: The Beginnings of Activism by and for People with AIDS.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 103, no. 10, 2013, pp. 1788-1798.