An epidemic of rebuttal

In our new series, the Five-Minute Friday Read, we’re publishing essays by our Fellows on a range of important and timely topics in the humanities. Today, Kane Race FAHA, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, explores the public health response to the current monkeypox outbreak and its relationship to the responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

This article was written on 16 August 2022. At the time of approval for publication, local vaccines for Monkeypox have run out, local transmission has been recorded in Victoria and NSW, and there are 106 cases of the disease of in Australia.

Over the last 2 years, it has become common to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as an ‘unprecedented’ event – the first major epidemic of ‘our lifetimes’. I have heard colleagues, pundits and high distinction students describe Covid-19 as ‘the first global pandemic of note since the Spanish flu’.

Such remarks are jarring for anyone whose life, intimate relations, friendship circles or social world has been touched by HIV/AIDS – and I would venture to say that is most of us, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. 

But this misplaced description of Covid-19’s uniqueness also presents an opportunity to reflect on the discursive systems that structure what is considered consequential or worth mentioning, and the kinds of people included and prioritized by those systems.

How can HIV, a virus that is estimated to have killed over 40 million people worldwide and infected up to 100 million people over the past 4 decades, elude the attention of educated observers?

The answer has to do with the symbolic, psychic and scientific practices that serve to locate and contain the threat of infectious diseases within dominant social imaginaries. 

HIV is routinely associated with homosexuals, people who inject drugs and other marginalized groups in Western consciousness – and not without justification, since for much of the epidemic, gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM) have constituted roughly two-thirds of infections in Australia, North America and Western Europe.

Heterosexual transmission, even though it accounts for about 20% of HIV infections in Australia, tends to be constructed as the distant experience of developing countries, most evident in the figure of ‘African AIDS’.1

In 1987, Simon Watney drew attention to how the discursive formation of the ‘general public’ excluded ‘everyone who stands outside the institution of marriage’.2 Other HIV critics worry that the epidemiological construction of risk groups as gay or other stigmatised social identities plays into the tendency of the dominant culture to distance itself from the risks and responsibility of HIV. 

In the early years of the crisis, North American AIDS activists argued that HIV education programs should prioritise ‘acts over identities’.3 In the context of the extraordinary neglect and rampant homophobia that characterized governmental responses to AIDS in that continent, their counter-claim made sense. It also usefully pointed to the need for a more general prevention program.

This is a ‘universalizing strategy’ that counters the homophobic, epidemiological, ‘minoritizing’ descriptions of infection.4 Let’s call it the ‘anyone can get it’ rebuttal. 

When I run university classes on community responses to HIV in Australia, I am often struck by the coyness, if not outright resistance of many students to the claim that sex between men has been a principal route of HIV transmission in this country – as well as a key site of cultural, social, political, and practical innovations that seek to prevent it.  

Students think that such claims are discriminatory, and so they are, but discriminating between the present, real-world circumstances of transmission risk is necessary for the effective distribution of care, prevention and responsiveness.

Risky identifications

On 23 July 2022, the WHO declared monkeypox (‘MPX’) to be a ‘public health emergency of international significance’.  By that time, over 16,000 infections had been recorded in 75 countries since May 2022, with the vast majority of cases (98%) identified in MSM.5

The WHO Tweet mentioning that ‘the outbreak is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners’ was met with hundreds of replies accusing the organization of homophobia. Many drew comparisons to the stigmatization of gay men during the early AIDS crisis.  

MPX is rarely fatal, but for many people, the spectacle of a disfiguring viral infection spreading primarily among gay and other MSM recalls devasting, painful memories and horrifying images of the AIDS crisis. The ‘lessons’ people are drawing from this history, while recovering from the losses and disruptions caused by another zoonotic virus (Covid-19), are variable and disconcerting. 

A prominent concern among some of WHO’s critics is that the focus on gay men is part and parcel of a homophobic refusal to acknowledge that anyone can get monkeypox, by virtue of its various modes of transmission, which (unlike HIV) are not limited to sex and needle-sharing.  

We have all dutifully accumulated a collective imaginary of unwitting airborne infection over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. But these responses are also informed by the universalizing ‘anyone can get it’ rebuttal that can be traced, ironically enough, to the well-meaning efforts of educators to counter the phobic aversions embedded in the framing HIV as a ‘gay disease’.  

The version of HIV history invoked by WHO’s critics could certainly do with a bit of careful contextualizing, as a number of commentators have pointed out. 

The most egregious, homophobic aspect of early governmental responses to AIDS was not the identification of risk groups per se, but the systematic inaction and shameful neglect of the health crisis under the US Reagan administration and in Thatcher’s UK. The epidemiological identification of gay men and other marginalized communities as ‘HIV risk groups’ was used to justify this murderous neglect: these lives were expendable, these deaths could be ignored, no crisis necessary.

Origin stories

MPX was first identified as a source of disease in humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970, with a case fatality rate of 3-6%. While small outbreaks have been identified in other countries and populations since 2003, including outside the African continent, they have generally been confined to very small case numbers and quickly contained. 

Before 2022, the largest recorded outbreak began in Nigeria in 2017, when 200 cases were identified, predominantly among young adult men—a number of whom presented with genital ulcers and other sexually transmitted infections.6 

The current international outbreak was first detected in early May 2022 in the UK, and within a few days, cases were reported in Europe, North and South America, Asia and beyond. Some experts attributed the spread of the virus to specific ‘superspreader’ events – specifically, two massive gay dance parties held in Europe over the northern summer. 

The US and UK governments have been criticized for their tardy, uncoordinated responses to the present emergency, exacerbated by the chronic underfunding of sexual health services in the UK and other epidemic hotspots. In Australia criticism has so far been more restrained, though gay men have been watching anxiously as the virus runs rampant overseas and local case numbers creep upwards. Recent history has trained us to endure long waits for imported vaccines, it would seem.

As with other global epidemics, the tyranny of distance and the seasonal lag between the Northern and Southern summer have so far worked to our advantage. When I asked the staff of a Sydney gay sauna whether they had noticed a drop-off in clientele in response to MPX, they told me things have been quiet, but no quieter than usual for this time of year. At the time of writing (August 2022), 70 cases have been recorded in Australia (and 32 000 worldwide, which represents a doubling of global incidence in just 3 weeks).  

The unfolding of this public health emergency internationally raises pressing questions about the priorities of global public health. Why have outbreaks in Central and West Africa over the past decades not garnered international attention or spurred vaccine manufacturers to step up production and distribution to this region? Why was an international emergency not declared earlier, enabling countries to trigger their emergency public health mechanisms and mobilise the necessary resources? And in our efforts to devise an effective strategy to prevent the further spread of MPX, how can the damages induced by stigmatizing responses be countered and avoided?

If the charge of homophobia can be levelled at the WHO response at all, it does not relate to their specification of the epidemiology of the outbreak. Instead, one might point to the relatively slow pace of their response. By the time WHO declared MPX an international emergency, some US officials were already worried ‘the window for getting control of this has probably closed’.7 

In Australia lately…

A week after the WHO declaration, Australia declared MPX a ‘Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance’. In early August, the Federal Health Minister announced that they had secured 450,000 doses of the vaccine Jynneos from its sole manufacturer, Bavarian Nordic, in a highly contested global market. While older smallpox vaccines exist, Jynneos is a third-generation subcutaneous vaccine which is safe for people living with HIV. 

In Sydney and Melbourne, people are already being vaccinated. But only 20% of the vaccine doses are slated to arrive this year. With Sydney set to host World Pride in February 2023 – an event expected to attract 500,000 international participants – the task of vaccinating Australians quickly enough to avert a major outbreak over summer seems a formidable, Herculean task.

Meanwhile, Australian government websites remain cagey about naming MSM as most at risk of contracting MPX, no doubt overly wary of stoking stigma.8 Nonetheless, the limited supply of vaccines has made it necessary to triage vaccination on the basis of epidemiologically-informed risk profiles. 

The online form that NSW Health has set up to register interest in MPX vaccination asks me about my sexuality, number of casual sex partners, whether I attend sex venues or group sex parties, and whether I engage in chemsex, among other questions. People eager for the vaccine must weigh up how much self-incriminating information they are prepared to disclose. Only the brave will qualify, it seems.

Reaping and sewing

In stark contrast to the shameful legacies of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, the Australian response to HIV/AIDS is internationally acclaimed for its different, far more effective strategy. Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett and key advisors brokered a bi-partisan approach to the emerging crisis and worked with advocates from affected communities. Imagine that – making ‘junkies, poofters and whores’ policy partners! 

These risk groups were tasked with the responsibility of delivering carefully targeted education programs and support services that were ‘in touch’ with the subcultural lives and worlds in which the virus was circulating – about which governmental and medical officials agreed they knew little. John Ballard characterized this approach as ‘government at a distance’.9 It proved highly effective and later became known as ‘Australia’s partnership approach to HIV’. 

But it did not go uncontested. A more traditional approach was favoured by a number of top medical specialists and governmental advisors, who recommended standard measures such as mandatory testing of risk groups, compulsory notification of test results, quarantining those infected and the use of law enforcement to restrict their activity and movement. Paul Sendziuk characterizes this strategy as ‘test and contain’.10

Some of these advisors called for the closure of gay sex venues and saunas and the abandonment of Mardi Gras until the epidemic was over. Gay community activists had a different perspective: they situated these venues and events as vital opportunities for engaging and educating members of these ‘hard-to-reach’ affected populations about safe sex and other care practices. This reframing was effective. In 1985, a top medical advisor who in 1983 had called for the cancellation of the Mardi Gras party, describing it as a ‘Bacchanalian orgy’, completing reversed his position, stating ‘Mardi Gras would provide a perfect forum for large-scale education about AIDS’.11

The forms of top-down public health measures taken during the Covid-19 pandemic tend to misfire when an epidemic is concentrated in stigmatized sexual communities and other marginalized groups. They push those most affected further underground, away from vital education and services. The impacts of stigma on collective capacities for care are so significant that they necessitate a complete rethinking of public health strategies along the principles elaborated by the Australian partnership approach to HIV, which I have discussed as ‘counterpublic health’.12

How then to weigh the risks and benefits of (a) ‘minoritizing strategies’ that draw on epidemiology to better target specific at-risk groups but might simultaneously cause a decline in broader public care and attention – and (b) ‘universalizing strategies’, which generalize responsibility for disease prevention but may neglect to direct appropriate care and limited resources to those most in need and most affected?  It is a balancing act with no easy answers. 

The tension itself is perfectly embodied in the infamous Grim Reaper campaign of 1987. It was regarded by some as a success for keeping HIV on the public agenda and worthy of continued resourcing, while others detested it for its ghostly incarnation of HIV in a figure far too easily mistaken for an HIV-positive gay man, thus amplifying phobic mass stigma.13

Far less deadly but more easily transmitted through close physical contact, the Australian Monkeypox emergency should not require us to resurrect that Grim figure. A swift response on the part of affected communities, organisations and experts well-versed in Australia’s partnership approach should let the Reaper rest in the ground a good while longer. Time to get sewing.


1 A. Brotherton (2016) ‘The circumstances in which they come’: Refiguring the Boundaries of HIV in Australia. Australian Humanities Review60, 44-61; C. Patton (1992) From nation to family: Containing African AIDS. In A. Parker, M. Russo, D. Sommer, D., & P. Yaeger (Eds.) Nationalisms & Sexualities (pp 218-34). Routledge.

2 S. Watney (1987) The spectacle of AIDS. October43, 71-86.

3 A. Jagose (1996) Queer theory: An introduction. NYU Press

4 I take ‘universalizing vs minoritizing’ from the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who uses the terms in a different context to describe countervailing theorisations of homosexuality. E. K Sedgwick (1990) Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press

5 In the present outbreak, 95% of transmissions have been attributed to sexual activity, though authorities indicate the virus can spread through other forms of ‘close personal contact’, such as ‘direct skin-on-skin contact’ and exposure to contaminated objects. The virus causes fever, headache, swelling of the lymph nodes and painful lesions across the body. About 10% of those infected have required hospitalization in the UK, but worldwide only a few deaths have so far been recorded.

6 D. Ogoina et al. (2019) The 2017 human monkeypox outbreak in Nigeria—report of outbreak experience and response in the Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. PLoS One14(4), e0214229.

7 Compare covid-19, declared a ‘public health emergency of international significance’ on 30 January 2020, just a month after the Wuhan outbreak, when less than 8000 cases had been recorded, and fewer than 100 infections identified outside China. 

8 This may also explain why some state authorities are still publicly attributing the high case numbers among MSM internationally to their ‘higher health-seeking behaviour’ – an explanation that is by now unconvincing given MSM account for all MPX-related hospitalizations in the UK.

9 J. Ballard (1998) The constitution of AIDS in Australia. In M. Dean and B. Hindess (Eds.) Governing Australia: Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government, (p125) Cambridge University Press.

100 P. Sendziuk (2003) Learning to trust: Australian responses to AIDS. UNSW Press.

111 K.Race (2018) The gay science: Intimate experiments with the problem of HIV. Routledge.

12 K. Race (2009) Pleasure consuming medicine: The queer politics of drugs. Duke University Press.

13 P. Sendziuk (2003) Learning to trust: Australian responses to AIDS. UNSW Press.

About the author

Professor Kane Race FAHA

Kane Race is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. He is internationally recognised for his contribution to HIV social research and critical drug studies, where his research has offered new understandings of care practices and disease prevention in the context of biomedical, digital and other technological developments that have influenced public health practice as well as thinking in the fields of sexualities, cultural studies and social theory. His research has been published in key journals across the fields of cultural studies, sociology, HIV prevention and education, drug policy and gender and sexuality studies. He is the author of Pleasure Consuming Medicine: the queer politics of drugs (Duke University Press, 2009); Plastic Water: the social and material life of bottled water (with G. Hawkins and E. Potter, MIT Press, 2015) and The Gay Science: intimate experiments with the problem of HIV (Routledge, 2018).

He Tweets at @kanerace.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.