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ACT UP NY faces backlash over face mask equating COVID-19 pandemic with AIDS crisis

The charity has defended itself after riffing on a famous slogan from the height of the AIDS crisis.

By Tim Heap

AIDS charity ACT UP NY has come in for criticism after sharing an image on its social media channels of a face mask adorned a famous slogan from the height of AIDS crisis.

The organisation has teamed up with homelessness and AIDS charity Housing Works to create an image of a face mask bearing the words: “If I die of COVID-19—forget burial, drop my body on the steps of Mar-a-Lago.”

The image was posted alongside a well-known image from during the height of the AIDS, which shows the late performance artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz wearing a jacket that reads “If I die of AIDS—forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” (The Food and Drugs Administration)

On Twitter, the images were shared with a tweet saying the face mask was designed “in reference to the late great David Wojnarowicz”. It’s currently been retweeted over 3,300 times and liked over 10,000 times.

Mar-a-Lago is the Donald Trump-owned luxury resport in Palm Beach, Florida.

While reactions on Instagram have been largely positive, Twitter users have expressed disappointment and anger that ACT UP NY have suggested the White House’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic is comparable with its response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Much activism during the AIDS crisis was directed against the US government, as then-President Ronald Reagan refused to publicly acknowledge the disease for several years.

One tweet simply states “This is tone deaf,” while others have called it “cringey”, an “absolutely horrendous take”, “cheap and wrong” and “disgusting”.

On Out Magazine’s reposting of the images on Instagram, one comment reads: “Can we plz not compare Covid-19 to AIDS. AIDS was specifically ignored because of how it primarily affected the gay community.”

In a series of recent tweets responding to criticism, ACT UP NY says: “No, #COVID19 isn’t AIDS but the parallels are clear as day. Vulnerable communities are taking the brunt of this pandemic due to overwhelming neglect. All the barriers in place (healthcare, pharma greed, housing, stigma, etc.) that have kept HIV alive will keep this virus alive.

“Just days ago, Trump’s FDA handed Gilead Sciences a 7-year monopoly (with help from the Orphan Drug Act) for their drug, remdesivir—a possible treatment for #COVID19. The drug was developed with at least $79 million in U.S. taxpayer funding.

“We’ve seen this same practice happen time and time again—most certainly and recently from Gilead Sciences and other giant pharmaceuticals—and generally from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic with HIV treatment meds dating even from our first action on March 24, 1987.

“And to that we say: ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! END AIDS! This virus will disproportionately affect people living with HIV and our longterm survivor community and we will give it our best fucking fight to eradicate it with direct action.”