Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Emily Bass's "To End a Plague"

Emily Bass has spent more than twenty years writing about and working on HIV/AIDS in America and East and Southern Africa. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Esquire, The Lancet, Ms., n+1, Out, POZ, Slice, and has received notable mention in Best American Essays. A lifelong social justice activist, Bass has served as an external expert for the World Health Organization and is a member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do Collective. She has been a Fulbright journalism scholar in Uganda and received scholarships from the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony and the Vermont Studio Center. She was the 2018-2019 Martin Duberman Visiting Research Fellow at the New York Public Library. A Manhattan native, Bass lives in Brooklyn with her family.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, To End a Plague: America's Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa, and reported the following:
From page 99:
As Fauci recalled, Bush’s domestic policy advisor Jay Lefkowitz—who’d help steer the president towards a position on stem cell research—took it a step further, asking Fauci, “What’s the moon shot here?”

Time-consuming under any circumstances, the task was nearly impossible to do in secret. In order to work up a public health moon shot and keep up with his day job, Fauci recruited Dr. Mark Dybul, a young researcher and physician in his lab, to help devise the proposal. Both men leaned on the visits they’d made to clinics in recent years. They were taken by the Ugandan example of a “hub-and-spoke”approach, in which central facilities did the lab work and stored the drugs, while more basic, distal sites provided the care. Fauci had seen Mugyenyi’s clinic; Dybul had visited Mugyenyi and also gone to Tororo, on the country’s easternmost edge, and seen a research project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that put all the medications and supplies a household needed on the back of a motorcycle ridden by a community health worker with the equivalent of a high school degree. The research project, known as the Home-Based AIDS Care (HBAC) project, was irresistible—the love child of Mother Teresa and Bruce Springsteen—and Dybul would credit it for years to come as a major inspiration.

By July 2002, as the AIDS world began packing its bags for the World AIDS Conference—which had moved from Durban to Barcelona—Fauci and Dybul had a rough sketch of a plan. Both men departed for the meeting, with Fauci assuring Dybul he would present the proposal when the time was right.

I’d left for the conference too, heartbroken over the final end of my relationship with Kate Sorensen a few months prior. We’d split in April, and I’d descended into maddened, hard-drinking sadness. “I’m wracked with grief,” I declared to a bemused, blue-eyed man at my best friend’s wedding the night before I flew to Barcelona. “Memory is a garden, eventually it becomes ground,” he replied, paraphrasing V. S. Naipaul.
Page 99 captures my book completely, and not just because it contains the phrase "the love-child of Bruce Springsteen and Mother Teresa." The first and last quotes hold the whole.

What’s the moonshot here?” At the top of the page, Jay Lefkowitz, a senior member of the George W. Bush first term White House staff, asks Dr. Tony Fauci. It’s 2002, so of course he’s not talking about covid-19, but HIV/AIDS. The moonshot that Fauci devises—aided by activists, African physicians, nurses and people living with HIV among many others—is the largest and longest-running pandemic-fighting response in American history to date. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, was launched by George W. Bush in January 2003, and it continues to this day. If you want to understand what it means to spend money wisely on a pandemic-ending moonshot, whether covid or a pandemic of the future, the book you need may be this one—an intimate, in-depth account of America’s best historic and ongoing work on fighting AIDS.

Memory is a garden, eventually it becomes ground,” offers a Brooklyn Irish man at the bottom of the page. He's paraphrasing VS Naipaul to me beside a bar while I tell him about the woman who’s recently broken my heart. Reader, I married him, but that’s not why this quote is such a perfect bookend for a page-length encounter with the book. Accomplished, masterful and artful, Naipaul is not a simple writer—nor is anyone writing in and about colonial and post-colonial configurations. This book puts me, a white cisgender woman who does not have HIV in her blood, in the story I’m reporting. Not to worry-it’s not about me finding myself in Africa or in the eyes of AIDS orphans, but about the messy, complex, unfinished and essential work of understanding where and who you are when you try to tell a story, whose story you’re telling, and whether you’re aware of your position—are you on solid ground? A little heartbreak, activist scheming, personal intrigue and political machinations? That’s here too, which is why one early reader has fulfilled my dream and called this a surprise beach read. Or, as I’ve been saying for years: It’s a history of America’s war on AIDS in Africa. It’s gonna be fun. (I mean the book. The topic, my life's work, is deadly serious.) And more recently: The book you need to read to understand how COVID might end, and other pandemics might be prevented, isn’t about COVID at all.
Follow Emily Bass on Twitter and visit her website.

--Marshal Zeringue