“Let’s do something dramatic” Sir Elton’s rallying cry
“Elton is always early” we were told by Anne Aslett, the Executive Director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). Sir Elton John, a consummate entertainment professional, was preparing for a thorough, political lecture looking at the HIV landscape – a career first. The fourth NAT lecture in memory of Princess Diana was going to run like clockwork. Security had investigated the building; paparazzi were outside in the street; health professionals, reporters, celebrities and the leaders of the HIV sector were gathering in the lobby of The Institut Français’ airy, art deco building in South Kensington. Not since 2001 when Bill Clinton delivered our Diana lecture had NAT been leading such a large, awareness-raising event for the cause that unites us all: fighting HIV and its related stigmas.
When he took to the stage, Sir Elton wasted no time in addressing the struggles familiar to the HIV community. Discussing the national outlook on HIV he said: “There is no doubt that this fight is being harmed by a lack of investment.” He was addressing people in the room and beyond whose support services have closed down, whose patients are struggling to access help, who know first-hand that specialised HIV services are disappearing.
He went on, “HIV prevention activity has been subject to savage cuts. That is because it is funded through local authorities rather than through the NHS. In the two years between 2015 and 2017 there was a 28 per cent cut – and the reductions were especially sharp in services for black and Asian minority groups and drug users.”
It’s not news to those in the sector, but the Diana, Princess of Wales Lecture on HIV is about reminding people as widely as possible that HIV hasn’t gone away. This is an event to show people everywhere that our work isn’t yet done. We can all feel dispirited by a lack of understanding in society at large and at times a lack of momentum. But Sir Elton called for dramatic action lead by optimism, and everyone in the room, and everyone reading this, has the power to contribute.
Sir Elton delved into increasingly crucial topic of connection technologies and illuminated a new site where the battle against HIV stigma can and must be fought. Social media can add to the gestures of connection and togetherness that Diana was known for. Her hugs and handshakes with people dying of AIDS were responsible for changing minds everywhere. Now, Sir Elton said, “at a stroke we can reach 2 billion people in a single moment on Facebook…imagine all that power to connect turned into billions of handshakes, all over the world.”
Sir Elton argued that social media can’t replace face-to-face contact, but it can be used to add to it. The atmosphere in the room was electric as our thirty-year struggle was linked to a new area of possibility.
“I am used to putting pressure on pharmaceutical companies. I am used to putting pressure on governments. We have had some success with both. The pressure now needs to be applied to the tech giants – not because I think they are bad, but because they have the capacity to do so much good.”
We were honoured that Sir Elton was undertaking a task like this for the first time in partnership with NAT. For our small team, the intensive preparation for the lecture had taken over, and in trying to get everything right for the media, we’d almost forgotten that an audience of 230 people would be there to react instantly to Sir Elton’s address. And react they certainly did. Sir Elton received a warm standing ovation before being thanked by our Chair Professor Jane Anderson. At the reception where guests, including Beverley Knight, MNEK and Owen Jones, mingled and reflected, the room was full of ideas about what technology should bring to the HIV sector and where our struggle will take us next. We are now more than ever determined to “do something dramatic,” as Sir Elton urged us.
“In memory of Princess Diana, in memory of all those we have lost to HIV/AIDS and for the love of all those infected today and all those infections we can prevent tomorrow, let us bind together for the good we can do.”