Ghosts of Pandemic Past: What the HIV/AIDS Crisis Can Teach Us About Covid-19
Over the past 18 months, Covid-19 has caused tremendous heartbreak, accompanied by an uptick in divisiveness and growing skepticism. Moreover, it has provided a breeding ground for widespread fear and misinformation about the virus itself. Every new public health crisis has its challenges such as managing conspiracies, misinformation, and hysteria. We can look no further than the HIV/AIDS crisis to see that not much has changed in the last 40 years.
The first case of AIDS in the United States was reported in November 1981 when a gay man died from a rare, aggressive cancer known as Kaposi’s Sarcoma. At the time of his death, doctors did not understand its origin or the patient’s weakened immune system. Shortly thereafter, clusters of gay men (who were otherwise healthy) reported rare lung infections. By the end of 1982, 771 cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S., and 618 of those people had died. As a result, the CDC formally announced AIDS as an epidemic in the United States.
As the transmission and death rates continued to rise, so did the misconceptions, prejudices, and discrimination. AIDS became known as “Gay Men’s Pneumonia” or the “Gay Disease.” Articles and headlines started blatantly connecting the virus to gay men specifically, implying their actions or “lifestyles” were of public health concern (and threatening to the “traditional American family unit”). In one instance, an ad published by Moral Majority (an organization founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell) in a 1983 edition of the Falwellian View, read: “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families,”. All it took were five short words along with a picture of a family wearing masks, to epitomize this common myth about AIDS. Examples like this were used to push a political, antigay crusade; one that persuaded audiences into believing that contracting HIV/AIDS was a consequence or punishment for being gay. Simultaneously, those who contracted the virus were being discriminated against, some lost their jobs and even faced eviction.
In the early years of the crisis, conservative groups and government leaders did extraordinarily little to help spread awareness, lobby, or pass AIDS-related legislation that had the potential of saving lives. . Many elected officials believed the virus only affected gay men. This was a misconception that killed hundreds of thousands of people. AIDS was, in fact, not a “gay disease.” While male-to-male sex was the most common mode of exposure among persons reportedly infected with AIDS (46%), injection drug use (25%) and heterosexual contact (11%) were also part of the equation. And we must not forget that the virus disproportionately affected people of color and minorities the most.
Many politicians considered discussing AIDS or somehow reaffirming the “gay lifestyle” was the equivalent of political suicide. Most notably, in a 1982 press briefing, President Ronald Regan’s Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, joked and laughed about the AIDS crisis. Sadly, it would be three years from that briefing and four years into President Ronald Regan’s administration, before he ever uttered the word “AIDS” publicly. By that point, upwards of 90,000 souls had died of the disease.
Consequently, activists organized and began to fight back, demanding to be heard by their families, communities, and government. As a result, the government granted the first federal funding for AIDS research in 1986, five years after the first case. However, funding was extremely limited due to antigay prejudices; thus, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was founded in 1987. ACT UP conducted protests, civil disobedience, and lobbied so their voices (and future voices) would be heard. These efforts led to the rectification of misinformation and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS, national visibility, and increased funding for research.
Throughout the epidemic, approximately 85% of people diagnosed. with AIDS were between the ages of 20 and 49. By 1991, 10 years after the first AIDS-related death, 206,563 cases had been reported, and 156,143 people had died- a staggering 75.6% death rate. To date, over 500,000 people in the U.S. and 35+ million people have died from AIDS worldwide. An entire generation—gone.
Despite these heartbreaking tragedies, many advancements have occurred. 40 years later, protections are in place for those who live with HIV/AIDS as part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). There are also medications to help prevent HIV transmission, such as Truvada and Descovy (also known as PrEP pre-exposure prophylaxis) and medicines for those living with HIV. Fortunately, the progress does not stop there. Thanks to mRNA research, Moderna recently announced the beginning of human trials for two new experimental HIV vaccines– a massive breakthrough in a years-long fight to end HIV. Both vaccines use mRNA, like the Covid-19 vaccine. The trials, set to begin soon, are the first of their kind. No experimental HIV vaccine has ever been safe or compelling enough to test on humans until now.
In light of this momentous news, we remember those who we have lost. Yet, we make our way forward to a new world where there are no stigmas surrounding HIV, it does not kill or destroy, but people get to live freely and openly. Finally, hope is on the horizon; we are on the cusp of eradicating this “Gay (straight, black, white, Christian, Atheist, rich, poor- every color and every creed) Disease.”
If the current pandemic is any indication, we are sure to repeat the mistakes of our past–allowing prejudice, biases, misinformation, and fear to run amuck and cloud our progress in combating new health crises. It is my hope that we find empathy and a newfound willingness to come together to seek safety from Covid-19, free of prejudice and misinformation unlike we like we were able to do all those years with HIV/AIDS. We have been here before, but now we have a chance to change course and navigate these challenging times–together.
To know your HIV status and to get tested, go to https://gettested.cdc.gov/.