Van Ness, 35, shared his thoughts on the handling of the outbreak in a personal essay for Time published on Monday, in which the activist began by reflecting on the day the US confirmed its first case of monkeypox on 18 May.
He then claimed the government’s response has been influenced by the fact that the outbreak has primarily affected LGBTQ men.
“Watching the government’s botched response to monkeypox has been surreal, and in many ways, I believe it’s been fueled by homophobia and transphobia. When an outbreak affects mainly men who have sex with men, some portion of our elected legislators will have no incentive to act,” he wrote. “They think it will not touch their constituents, which is obviously messed up because people’s lives are at stake, and there are queer people in all 50 states.”
Van Ness said he decided to take it upon himself to raise awareness about the spread of monkeypox when one of his close friends was forced to cancel a trip to visit him in New Orleans, where he is filming Queer Eye, because they had been exposed to the virus.
“I started calling all the political contacts I have, ringing alarm bells about how quickly cases were rising, and pleading with officials to take the virus more seriously,” Van Ness wrote, adding that the response can be compared to the government’s handling of the AIDS epidemic, and that he has been especially disappointed in those in the government who were also in office “during the onslaught of the AIDS crisis, like President [Joe] Biden and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi”.
Van Ness then took the opportunity to call out the individual failings of the government’s response to the monkeypox outbreak, which he said includes a lack of tests, access to treatments, vaccine supply, and “ambiguous guidance”.
“From the moment that monkeypox cases began rising in June, the government should have been taking more proactive steps,” he continued, before claiming that the country’s shortage of vaccines could have been prevented, and questioning why “we haven’t seen this administration prioritise the rapid procurement of monkeypox vaccines” when “we’ve seen, in recent history, an administration procure a lot of vaccines fast”.
The shortage of monkeypox vaccines in the US has become a point of contention, after some critics suggested that the administration was too slow in shipping vaccines from Denmark, where they are manufactured, and too slow to order that bulk vaccines be processed into vials, according to The New York Times.
In the essay, Van Ness, who learned he was HIV positive 10 years ago, then acknowledged his own privilege to be “housed, have money, and have access to protection,” before noting that he is concerned for the queer community and those who test positive for the virus who don’t have the same protections.
“I’m really concerned about the queer community and the people who are going to be asked to isolate for three weeks at a time because they tested positive – the people who are going through excruciating pain and don’t have what I have,” the celebrity hairstylist wrote.
According to Van Ness, when monkeypox was declared a public health emergency on 4 August, it was a “step in the right direction,” however, he also claimed that “it was a day late and a dollar short”.
The comedian also took the opportunity to reference a joke he tells during his stand-up routines, in which he says that it has been amusing to see how shocked people have been by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as the queer community is “used to this sort of inaction”.
“I do this joke in my stand-up routine – that it’s been so funny watching straight people be shocked with the government response during Covid-19, because we’re like: ‘Honey, this is Tuesday. You thought the government was going to come help you?’ We’re used to this sort of inaction. Monkeypox is like: same day, different virus,” he wrote.
Van Ness then encouraged people to educate themselves about the virus, including how it spreads and what it feels like, and to “put pressure” on “state representatives and federal representatives to improve vaccine access”.
“Let your legislators know that this is a priority for you as a voter,” he wrote.
The Queer Eye star concluded the essay noting how sad it has been to see “the way that people devalue issues they don’t think affect them,” before stating that everyone should care about monkeypox “because we should care about each other”.
Van Ness also noted that, while the focus should be on monkeypox right now, it is important to also acknowledge diseases such as HIV, and the stigmas and barriers that still exist around these diseases.
“This isn’t just a monkeypox story. This is a story of how we consistently fail people on the margins. We have to become bold about what we’re willing to witness – and no one should have been willing to witness this outbreak spread for the last two months,” he wrote.
As of Monday, the US has 11,890 confirmed cases of monkeypox, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus, which is related to smallpox, is transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected person or animal, or with material contaminated with the virus, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which notes that transmission from one person to another can occur from “close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding”.