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Why BBC Radio 4’s Aids documentary hits home today

With countless sharp and memorable remarks on both activism and a public health crisis, ten-part series A Big Disease with a Little Name sounds stunningly apposite.

By Antonia Quirke

With countless sharp and memorable remarks on both activism and a public health crisis, this ten-part series about the emergence and arc of the Aids epidemic (omnibuses air 12 and 19 June, 9pm) sounded stunningly apposite. We heard from patients, nurses, doctors, scientists, with every short episode ­concentrating on one story. 

Each narrator spoke frankly about the first incidents of the virus – young, healthy men inexplicably drenched in eternal sweat – or of the shockingly high death rates. A ­doctor recalled that just one of his early patients survived. (“I cannot think of an infectious disease that has anything like that ­mortality. Smallpox killed less than 40 ­per cent of those it infected.”) The suicide rate among partners of the dead was unusually high. Having nursed their lover through their ­final illness many men had to face their own death alone, ­after ­intimately observing how ­agonising it would get. (“That’s a ­particularly unique and painful aspect… not replicated in other diseases.”) 

So many striking images and facts. Here’s one: Reagan didn’t say the word “Aids” until four years into the epidemic. But some episodes were near euphoric: such as one about the furiously effective US campaigning group ACT UP, who fought to lower the price of the drug AZT, used to delay development of Aids in HIV patients. They described infiltrating the headquarters of pharmaceutical company Burroughs ­Wellcome in North Carolina using fake IDs, ­carrying electric drills in briefcases, and ­employing the sorts of negotiations that made me think Dog Day Afternoon. With added fun.

As one lesbian activist sighed, “There was a lot of joy in that group.” 

But as the series went on, spanning the past two weeks, certain declarations increasingly hit home. “Stop killing us”; “If they don’t start listening to our community then we will be back”; “Silence equals death”. As each episode was broadcast straight after World at One, it was impossible not to focus on the recurring language of activism, the very shape of certain ­phrases. Voices merging and raised against a litany of callous policies. Greed and ­prejudice and occasional victories. A series that sounded like burning magnesium. 

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A Big Disease with a Little Name 
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars