The Pope and AIDS

Do you agree with the Pope’s comment that condoms “increase” the AIDS problem in Africa? That’s the teaser that AOL offered its many subscribers last week. I have to say that I am a sucker for online and indeed offline polls and quizzes. It’s the inner box-ticker, I suppose. Part of me should have been employed by MORI or Gallup or one such statistical organisation (about 54.7% of me, I would say). I always thought that the famous line about lies and damned lies was unfair on statistics. Having said that, I once met the late journalist Alan Brien, who was employed as a pollster in the North-East during the war, and he told me that he had blithely filled in a sheaf of forms at home, rather than tramp the streets asking impertinent questions about which party leader the good people of Sunderland would like to see installed as prime minister after the war. He duly totted up his forms, which he had filled in at random, and found that he had, quite by chance, caused Harry Pollitt (the then leader of the British Communist Party) to gain a very respectable majority. There was apparently some consternation at HQ.

Women’s magazines tend to go in for such exercises more than others (a slight exaggeration – magazines like New Statesman offer polls as well), which is why it is always a pleasure to get to the doctor’s early. You get a decent chance to answer a naff quiz. Internet providers also know that anything, oh but anything, that distracts their users from doing what they should be doing is going to go down well. With AOL’s polls attracting six-figure responses, as often as not, even when the question is something like ‘Is Paris Hilton stupid or just brainless?’, you get to click and then see whether you are one of the many or one of the few. And in this case, the answer looks so obvious, that I almost didn’t bother plonking my tick in the Yes box.

But I am a creature of habit, so I did. As usual, I was in the majority (I don’t seem to be able to fall into the rebel camp as often as I did). But what was really shocking was that just under a third – 32,000 people and rising – had ticked the box indicating that the Pope was quite right to make the allegation. That is a frightening figure. It is not remotely possible that these respondents had filled in the box as a joke. It means that the ignorance of the suffering caused by AIDS is still colossal, and that there is a substantial number of AIDS-deniers at large.

Four – a low number, perhaps – of my acquaintances have died from AIDS, although if I extend this out to friends of friends, the number increases dramatically. And I live, in gloval and social terms, in a comparative backwater (well, not even comparative, to be honest).

His Holiness is of course on a separate agenda, the pro-Life agenda, which argues that a condom is an agent of dark forces, and that its mission to prevent propagation is to be foiled by any sacred means at papal disposal. There is no point, almost, in rehearsing the argument. But I still think it’s shocking: 32,000 people pressing a button that condemns, by force of attitude, so many people to death. The world is a lonely and a frightening place.

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