Jonathan Van Ness: We still don't take monkeypox seriously enough

I remember the day the US confirmed its first case of monkeypox. It was mid-May and I had just interviewed Stephen Thrasher for my podcast, Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness. He has a new book The virus subclassabout how different classes of people bear an unfair burden of the cost of the viruses—appropriate, because since then cases of monkeypox have increased exponentially, mostly affecting queer men.

Watching the government’s failed response to monkeypox was surreal and in many ways I believe it was fueled by homophobia and transphobia. When the epidemic affects mostly men who have sex with men, some of our elected legislators will have no incentive to act. They think it won’t affect their constituents, which is obviously messed up because people’s lives are at stake and there are weird people in all 50 states.

A few weeks ago, a close friend of mine was supposed to visit me in New Orleans, where I shoot Strange eye, but he was exposed to monkeypox and was unable to travel. I started calling all the political contacts I had, sounding the alarm about how quickly cases were increasing and begging officials to take the virus more seriously.

I was really disappointed in our leaders, especially those who were in office during the onset of the AIDS crisis, like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi. Again, we see very little action taken until the situation spirals out of control. If nothing changes, we will continue to experience failures like this response that was tortured too few tests, lack of access to treatment, insufficient supply of vaccinesand ambiguous directions.

Since cases of monkeypox began to rise in June, the government had to take more proactive steps. The US has an insufficient supply of vaccines and this the shortage could have been prevented. If our government does not prioritize more robust access to vaccines, the epidemic will become an even bigger problem. We have seen in recent history one administration deliver many vaccines quickly. Why haven’t we seen this administration prioritize the rapid provision of monkeypox vaccines?

I’m really lucky to be in a place in my life where I’m settled, I have money, and I have access to protection. I have a therapist. But I’m really concerned about the queer community and the people who are going to be asked to self-isolate for three weeks because they’ve tested positive — the people who are going through excruciating pain and don’t have what I have.

Read more: America is only too happy to let people die

I want our elected officials to think about these already marginalized people and come up with a plan. Who takes care of them? When the government was concerned that the auto industry was going into crisis, they gave them billions of dollars. When they were terrified that the airlines would go into crisis, they gave them billions of dollars. When they feared the economy was in crisis, they sent checks for $1,400. We need to make sure these people have the money to pay their rent and bills and buy groceries. We have to watch out for each other.

Declaring monkeypox a federal public health emergency on August 4 was a step in the right direction, but it was a day late and a dollar late. Anything but stable access to vaccines for every single queer person in the country, and easy access to them TPOXX treatment, is a dereliction of our government’s responsibility. This is how young queer people become disenfranchised and disillusioned and believe their leaders don’t care about them.

I make this joke in my stand-up routine – that it’s been so funny to watch ordinary people be shocked by the government’s response during COVID-19 because we’re like, “Honey, it’s Tuesday. Did you think the government would come to your rescue? We are used to such inaction. Monkeypox is like: same day, different virus.

I think tragedy, hope, despair and resilience can live side by side. But we must act. For starters, everyone should make space in their lives to learn about this virus—to educate themselves about who monkeypox affects, how it spreadsand how does it feel like.

If you’ve ever watched Strange eye and “Yes Queen” along with me, I have one request of you: put pressure on your state and federal representatives to improve access to vaccines. Let your legislators know this is a priority for you as a voter.

It’s really sad to see in real time how people devalue issues they don’t think affect them. Everyone should care about monkeypox – because we need to take care of each other. This is true no matter what your own opinion of someone’s lifestyle may be.

And remember: it’s monkeypox right now, but there’s still HIV. There are still all these other illnesses that people suffer from and there is so much stigma and so many barriers around accessing care. This is not just a monkeypox story. This is a story of how we consistently fail marginalized people. We must become brave about what we are willing to witness – and no one should have wanted to witness the spread of this epidemic over the past two months.

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