Opinion: Ministry of Health 'has thrown the homophobes a bone' – New Zealand Herald

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Activist Shaneel Lal worries closeted queer folk who show symptoms of monkeypox will not come forward to get help due to fear of being outed. Photo / 123rf
No virus has threatened the queer community like monkeypox since the HIV Aids pandemic. Increased anti-queer sentiments have accompanied the surge in monkeypox cases. Reporting that gay and bisexual men make a majority of monkeypox cases is not homophobic, but the Government’s inaction to mitigate the spread of monkeypox is.
The World Health Organisation has declared monkeypox a global health emergency as cases surge. A declaration is the strongest call to action the WHO can make, with the most recent declaration being for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Throughout the monkeypox outbreak, the WHO and mainstream media have consistently reported that men who have sex with men make up a majority of the cases. The queer community must know when our people are vulnerable to a virus. We are a vigilant community, and having access to data on the spread of monkeypox allows us to safeguard our community.
The Government’s inaction to mitigate the spread of monkeypox, while knowing queer men make up a majority of the cases, is reminiscent of governments’ response worldwide to the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.
The Ministry of Health has thrown the homophobes a bone through its poorly written advice on its website. The MoH states that monkeypox may spread through sexual contact before stating that gay and bisexual men make up the majority of the cases. In last week’s monkeypox press conference, Dr Nick Chamberlain, national director of Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand’s national public health service, advised people to practise safe sex. All these things, when taken together, suggest that monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhoea, herpes or HIV Aids. There is no evidence that monkeypox is an STD and the MoH needs to be clear about this.
Safe sex will not prevent the spread of monkeypox. Wearing a condom or avoiding anal or vaginal penetration or oral sex will not prevent monkeypox. STD is one where sexual contact is crucial to transmission. Monkeypox is spread through any type of skin-to-skin contact, one of which can be sexual activity. Sexual activity often involves close and intimate touching, thus making it possible for monkeypox to spread from one person to another. But something as little as a handshake can transmit monkeypox.
The ambiguous reporting on monkeypox has opened queer people to homophobic attacks online.
Speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said, “the virus is the problem, not the people”. We must maintain the same attitude towards monkeypox. Not only is it downright homophobic, calling monkeypox a gay disease is how we undermine our health response to monkeypox.
Closeted queer folk who show symptoms of monkeypox will not come forward to get help due to fear of being outed. This will risk the lives of many closeted queer people. On the other hand, non-queer people may think they cannot contract monkeypox because it only affects queer people. They may also believe that having safe sex is all they need to do to prevent transmitting monkeypox.
New Zealand health officials initiated conversations with antiviral and vaccine manufacturers in May. However, the Government will not roll out monkeypox vaccines until New Zealand has community spread. In other words, monkeypox must first rip through the New Zealand queer community before the Government will roll out vaccines. The Government will sacrifice the queer community to the community spread of monkeypox before it steps in to prevent monkeypox from spreading to non-queer members of New Zealand.
New Zealand is after the smallest number of vaccines possible. Queer people are at the highest risk of contracting monkeypox. The vaccines must be administered based on risk. The Government failed to administer Covid-19 vaccines to Māori and Pacific communities first when these communities were at a higher risk. We must not repeat the same mistake with monkeypox.
Before monkeypox turns into a raging endemic, our Government must develop communication, fund testing, procure and rollout vaccines, implement effective contact tracing and ensure financial support for those isolating.
New Zealand’s health system is already overwhelmed. Community spread of monkeypox will debilitate our health system and leave queer people without care. We have a small window to act before it is, once again, too late. The team of 5 million can only be as strong as our most vulnerable. New Zealand was a world leader in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. We must act with the same compassion and urgency again.
• Shaneel Lal is a queer activist and co-founder and leader of End Conversion Therapy.


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