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Artillery Row

Save it, Slavitt

We all need the facts about monkeypox

Monkeypox, the World Health Organisation has declared, represents a global health emergency.

Don’t panic! After all, anyone with the utmost faith in the WHO after more than two-and-a-half years of COVID-19 has to be a sold a bridge. Still, placing time-tested cynicism to one side, this is clearly a good moment for us to be learning about what we and our loved ones can do to be safe. This is a nasty illness causing tremendous pain.

The Experts have been chiming in. “The myth that sexual activity is the cause of monkeypox and that reducing it is a valid strategy for managing a disease does not, on its face, make any sense,” says Andy Slavitt, a healthcare adviser under Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Now, it is true that sexual activity is not the cause of monkeypox. It is also true that close proximity to others is not the cause of COVID-19. On the other hand, close proximity to others exacerbates the risk of contracting COVID-19, and promiscuous sexual activity exacerbates the risk of contracting monkeypox.

Suffering has not been equally distributed

It is clear by now that suffering has not been equally distributed. According to a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, 98 per cent of infected people across 43 sites in 16 countries were gay or bisexual men. “Transmission was suspected to have occurred through sexual activity in 95 per cent of the persons with infection,” the authors state.

The argument has been made that gay and bisexual men might be likelier to get tested, and that might be true, but it is surely not this true. Certainly, over the coming months monkeypox could evolve and spread more easily through other means. But this is where things stand at present.

I believe it is instructive to compare Mr Slavitt’s response to monkeypox with his prominent and influential responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, he had a more proactive approach towards stopping the spread. Mr Slavitt did not merely advise people to keep their distance from one another — he demanded the closure of schools, bars and churches. He told people not to have trips and holidays. He called upon them to avoid their families at Christmas (not just in 2020 but in 2021 as well).

Slavitt was full of disdain for people who criticised and ignored guidelines and regulations. Indeed, it was a “murderously selfish” thing to do. In his book Preventable, he sighed:

The United States has evolved from a country that sacrificed on a broad scale for its ideals and lives of others to one where a few months of isolation and wearing a mask was too much to ask.

Slavitt had no problem with picking on individuals. He stumbled, for example, upon the case of a wedding at which COVID-19 had been spread around dozens of guests. ““Spreading the love” was the wedding theme,” he mused, “And it will be remembered by many even some not present for years to come.”

This is the guy who is now saying that non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent the spread of a virus are a waste of time. Are there two Andy Slavitts? Am I going insane?

To be fair, I do not actually disagree that non-pharmaceutical interventions, when a virus is heavily seeded in a population, tend to be inadequate (which I say as a regretful COVID hawk). It is true that more effort should be directed towards rolling out tests, treatment and vaccines for people at risk.

It is the stuff of farce

But let’s be real: it is absurd to maintain a hands-off approach to the spread of one virus while favouring prohibitive regulations, overbearing guidelines, and social shaming when it comes to a far less avoidable virus. Indeed, it is the stuff of farce.

One could, I suppose, make the case that we have a vaccine for monkeypox whereas we had no vaccines for COVID in 2020. But we did in 2021 when Slavitt, with the fury of Old Testament prophet, said that families enjoying Christmas amid the Omicron wave was like “gathering kindling together in a path during a blazing fire.” (Remember the nightmare of Christmas 2021? Nor me.)

Other familiar faces from the Lockdown Age have been popping up to apply their dubious expertise to a fresh crisis. Dr Eric Ding wants to combine his natural inclination towards hysteria with a sensitive approach towards minorities. His solution to the problem then? Wear a mask! Yes, Dr Ding has used the fact that monkeypox might theoretically spread through the air to bang on about masks, masks, masks. Perhaps it will spread through the air in the future. But how is it spreading now?

Again, there is no doubt that resources and energy should be directed towards the creation and distribution of tests, vaccines, and treatments. But we should be honest about the nature of the virus and the disease.

If we thought people deserved to hear the truth about behaviour that raises the risk of contracting COVID-19, why do they not deserve to hear the truth about behaviour that raises the risk of contracting monkeypox? If we were authoritarian moralists throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, but now flinch from prohibition and stigma, we should interrogate ourselves about our inconsistency — or be interrogated in return. After all, we will have emergencies again and we should be clear on what constitutes a proper response.

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