Jonathan Van Ness: U.S. Monkeypox Response Is Inadequate

YouThe day that the U.S. first confirmed a case of monkeypox. For my podcast, it was in May, and Steven Thrasher had just been interviewed. Jonathan Van Ness, Getting Curious. His new book is out. The Viral Underground Class, about how different classes of people bear an unfair burden of the cost of viruses—fitting, because since then, monkeypox cases have increased exponentially, primarily affecting queer men.

Watching the government’s botched response to monkeypox has been surreal, and in many ways, I believe it’s been fueled by homophobia and transphobia. If the outbreak affects mostly men who have sex, then some of our elected legislators won’t have any incentive to take action. They think it will not touch their constituents, which is obviously messed up because people’s lives are at stake, and there are queer people in all 50 states.

A few weeks ago, one of my close friends was supposed to visit me in New Orleans, where I’m filming Queer Eye, but he was exposed to monkeypox and couldn’t travel. So I began calling my political contacts, raising alarm about the rapid rise in cases and asking them to be more serious.

I’ve been really disappointed in our leaders, especially those who were in office during the onslaught of the AIDS crisis, like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi. Once again, we’re seeing too little action taken until the situation has ballooned out of control. If nothing changes, we’ll continue to experience failures like this response, which has been plagued with too few tests, lack of access to treatments, inadequate vaccine supply, and ambiguous guidance.

The government had to take more proactive measures from the time monkeypox began increasing in June. This shortage of vaccines in the United States could have been avoided. If our government doesn’t prioritize more robust vaccine access, the outbreak is going to become an even greater problem. We’ve seen, in recent history, an administration procure a lot of vaccines fast. Why is it that we haven’t seen this administration prioritize the rapid procurement of monkeypox vaccines?

I’m really lucky that I’m in a place in my life where I’m housed, have money, and have access to protection. A therapist is available to me. But I’m really concerned about the queer community and the people who are going to be asked to isolate for three weeks at a time because they tested positive—the people who are going through excruciating pain and don’t have what I have.

Learn More: America is All Too Happy To Let People Die

My wish is for our elected representatives to reflect on these people who are already excluded and create a plan. Who cares for them? They gave billions to the government when they were worried that the automobile industry would collapse into financial crisis. Fearful that airlines would collapse, the government gave billions of dollars to them. They sent $1,400 checks to people who were worried about the economic crisis. This is how we can ensure these individuals have enough money to buy groceries, rent, and pay their bills. Protect each other.

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

I do this joke in my stand-up routine—that it’s been so funny watching straight people be shocked with the government response during COVID-19, because we’re like, ‘Honey, this is Tuesday. You thought the government was going to come help you?’ We’re used to this sort of inaction. Monkeypox can be described as: Same day, different virus.

It is possible to live side by side with tragedy, joy, despair, or resilience. However, we must take action. For starters, everyone should make space in their life to learn about this virus—to educate themselves about who monkeypox affects, how it spreads, and what it feels like.

If you’ve ever watched Queer Eye and “Yes, Queen”-ed along with me, I have an ask for you: put pressure on your state representatives and federal representatives to improve vaccine access. This is something that you, as a voter, should make a priority.

It’s really sad to see in real time the way that people devalue issues they don’t think affect them. Everyone should care about monkeypox—because we should care about each other. That’s true despite what your own opinion on someone’s lifestyle might be.

And remember: right now it’s monkeypox, but there’s still HIV. There are still all these other diseases that people suffer from, and there’s so much stigma and so many barriers around access to care. This isn’t just a monkeypox story. It’s a tale of the way we fail those at the margins. We have to become bold about what we’re willing to witness—and no one should have been willing to witness this outbreak spread for the last two months.

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