A few years ago (well before COVID), I met a woman in the waiting room of the vets. She had been a community nurse during the time of the AIDS epidemic and she talked about the profound discrimination and stigmatisation that HIV+ people experienced at the beginning of the epidemic, even by other healthcare workers. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember realising that the stigmatisation and discrimination against HIV+ people, and those who cared for them, was way worse than I had realised. For a good while after meeting her, I would come back to her comments and wonder who I would have been at that time. Would I have been her or would I have been the majority who behaved so despicably and callously towards others out of a fear for their own personal safety?
I’m pretty certain now that I would have been her, and not her colleagues or society more generally. I’m pretty certain of that because I have not lost my values to COVID-fear, unlike almost every other person I can think of.
In 1992 I was 17 years old. I will pick that year/age to compare myself to, as that was the year I disowned my entire extended family because their reaction to me moving to London was: “why would you want to live there, that’s where all the black people are.” I disowned them because I knew that discrimination is wrong, and I was prepared to pay a penalty for standing up for what I believed in. I continued to pay that penalty throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, as I was disowned by many white people I knew when I started speaking strongly against racism and white privilege before it was common for white people to do so.
So in 1992, I stood against discrimination and prejudice. I still stood against it in 2002, in 2012, and I will still be standing against it in 2022. Discrimination, prejudice, and stigmatisation are moral wrongs and the thing which has shocked and disheartened me the most during this pandemic, is how few people have held onto their values throughout the fear-mongering messaging of the last two years.
We now have legal segregation in Britain in the form of vaccine passports. We now have people who would claim to stand against injustice clamouring for it, endorsing discrimination, championing the erosion of civil liberties and human rights of a certain subset of society. The hypocrisy is profound. I was going to say the cognitive dissonance is profound, but I do not think these people experience any discomfort from their actions. They actually think they are right to discriminate and stigmatise.
When I left America in 2004, it was because of the same stomach churning behaviour that I see about me now. How the bloated narcissism that underpins the average American psyche facilitated people to turn the other way as over a million innocent people (link to PDF) were murdered in their name under the auspices of the ‘war on terror’. A war, we all know now, and some of us knew then, to be based on lies and deceit. And I watched how, years later, these same face turning people started to speak out against the war when it was too late. When too many had already perished as a consequence of their knee jerk reactions and/or apathy.
Similarly, in 1992 I believed in proactive health management. I exercised frequently, ate healthily, and retained good metabolic health. I only turned to drugs when I was ill as a very, very last resort. I refused steroids for my asthma. I restricted my diet to control my chronic health conditions. I took responsibility for my own health and wellbeing. I did that in 1992, in 2002, in 2012, and I will still be doing it in 2022.
Likewise, I unfortunately knew in 1992 why bodily integrity is a human right. Why it is the most fundamental and important of all the human rights, because if you don’t have power over your own body, you have no power at all. I knew how profoundly damaging and destructive it was to lose my bodily integrity in 1992, just as I still knew in 2002, in 2012, and I will know in 2022 because I live with the consequences of losing it every second of my life. That people could turn their face to the loss of that is the one that hurts me most of all, because of what it means they sanction. What it means they allow to happen as they turn their faces aside. Perhaps soon I will write more on this.
I have not changed; I have retained my values; I have practised continuity with the person I was before COVID and with the person I know I will be after COVID. Because I meant it in 1992 when I said discrimination was wrong, when I said bodily integrity was a human right, when I cared for my body and stayed healthy because no one else would or should care for it. I meant it then, and I have meant it every year since.
When I look around around me, I see a lot of seriously ugly people and I wonder, who will you be in 5 years time? Will you reinvent yourselves like the face turners of the ‘war on terror’? Will you start standing against discrimination and try to bury the hypocrisy of your past? Who are you? What do you stand for? Is who you are now, and what you are prepared to sanction, who you were all along?
What a grave sorrow and profound disappointment you are.