About two months ago, I woke up with a sore throat and a fuzzy head. While in healthier times I’d dismiss it as a harmless bug, I reported my mild illness to the Covid-19 symptom app which is helping King’s College London and the NHS understand the coronavirus.
Despite no fever or cough, I was asked to take a test, so I cycled to my nearest walk-through mobile unit, and swabbed my tonsils and nose. In the morning the test came back negative, so I poured myself a Lemsip, and soon after I felt better.
It was just a cold as I suspected. But I felt happy knowing I’d done the responsible thing – I’d done my part in helping stop the spread of infection. In the fight against the pandemic, knowledge is power and testing is key.
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I wanted to do more though. During the peak, Covid-19 wasn’t just an abstract concept or an alarming news story for me. My friend’s father – who lives just a few streets away – spent 10 days on a ventilator in intensive care before dying from the virus. And my neighbour, a doctor, is still recovering from a seemingly mild infection which she contracted in March. When the threat is on your doorstep, you start to take notice.
So I want to make a difference. I want to take part in vaccine trials and, if I am unlucky enough to contract Covid-19 at some point, I want to donate my blood plasma so that scientists can use my antibodies for treatment of other seriously ill patients. But I can’t. Because I’m a gay man. I’m considered high risk because I am a man who has sex with another man.
That’s despite being happily married with two children, monogamous for 17 years, healthy, HIV negative, fit and relatively young. If I was straight, bedded a different partner every week, even every night, and had never seen the inside of a GUM clinic, let alone had a test taken, I’d still be eligible to open my veins for the good of humanity.
No matter how you look at this policy, it’s homophobic and out of touch. It’s taken years for the gay community to shake off the stigma of the Aids epidemic of the 1980s (an event which directly led to the current NHS guidelines on gay blood donation), yet here we are in 2020 facing a virus which does not discriminate, only to be told we are still somehow contaminated.
When you look at the latest stats, you can see the problem of course. Of the 4,453 people diagnosed with HIV in Britain in 2018, 51 per cent were gay or bisexual men. London, the city where I live, continues to have the highest rates of HIV in the country: 34 per cent of new diagnoses in 2018 were in London residents and 38 per cent of people seen for HIV care were living in the capital.
Based on this statistical modelling, the rules therefore say that, like blood donation, I must abstain from making love to my husband for three months or forget about it. Yes, I could go without for a while. Three months is not a long time for me to live like a celibate monk. But during a public health crisis which has seen the virus take almost 46,000 lives so far, it’s an age. In that time, gay and bisexual donors who could help provide life-saving treatment have been turned away.
What’s needed is a fairer donation system – one based on sexual behaviour, not sexual orientation. Gay men have for too long been treated as a homogenous group – everyone tarred with the stereotype of being promiscuous disco bunnies, hopping into bed with each other at the slightest provocation.
Like most generalisations, there is a nugget of truth in it – there is a strong hedonistic element to the scene – but there are also singles looking for romance, loving couples settling down, getting married and having kids, maybe even a cat or a dog or two.
There needs to be a more robust screening process that looks beyond the statistics and takes a more nuanced approach to eligibility. A collaborative report into whether the guidelines could be changed to allow some gay and bisexual men to donate blood without the current three-month deferral was delayed, ironically, by the coronavirus and is now not due to release its findings until the end of this year. It has the potential to lift the blanket ban on men who have sex with men, hopefully in time for Christmas. Its late arrival, however, could be costing lives.
As summer zips by and the country prepares for the very real possibility of a second wave even before the winter flu season kicks in, it’s time the NHS updated its rule book for the 21st century and stopped discriminating against a community who have faced the threat of a virus before and are empowered to do whatever they can to selflessly help those battling against a new viral enemy.