A tale of two pandemics

Comparing and contrasting the coronavirus and AIDS crises

The AIDS memorial quilt laid out in front of the Washington Monument. PHOTO: NIH
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The 1981 AIDS epidemic should have been a warning for today’s catastrophe. All the elements of the Covid-19 disaster were there. A contagious killer virus, an inadequate public health system, right-wing bigotry, and government incompetence.

It was bold queer activists who drew the vital lessons about such epidemics: the necessity for speed in research and testing, the danger of stigmatizing victims, the need to push governments to face the danger.

Murderous prejudice. Religious fundamentalism shaped the response to the AIDS outbreak in the U.S. Bigots yelled it was “God’s judgment on homosexuals.” Gay men were treated like pariahs, shunned, evicted, fired. The shameful case of Steve Farmer epitomizes the atmosphere.

Washington state authorities needed a public villain to promote passage of the 1988 AIDS Omnibus bill, a civil-liberties nightmare providing for mandatory testing and quarantine. Farmer was convicted in 1988 “communicating with a minor for immoral purposes” (taking photos of a nude 17-year-old male prostitute). Prosecutors and much of the media tarred him as a killing machine, since AIDS was a death sentence at that time. Despite the no-contact nature of his crime, officials ordered that Farmer be tested against his will long after the specific incident he was charged with. When he turned up HIV-positive, Farmer was slapped with a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence, three times the normThe Stonewall Committee for Lesbian/Gay Rights fought tirelessly for justice for Farmer who was granted conditional clemency and moved to hospice care after medical reports indicated he was dying. After two years behind bars and two and a half years in hospice, Farmer died. 

Once AIDS was branded a gay man’s disease, science took a back seat to bigotry. The discovery of infected groups from other maligned communities — IV drug users, the homeless, hemophiliacs and Haitians — furthered discrimination. HIV+ children were evicted from schools. Federal authorities placed a travel ban on HIV+ people that lasted 23 years! Funding for needle exchanges, proven to reduce infection, was denied.

Today, the right wing is again scapegoating and hindering progress. They spout anti-Asian bigotry, emboldened by Trump’s slur of “the Chinese virus.” Tea Party-type protesters push anti-science conspiracy theories to justify early reopening of the economy. In doing so, they disregard those most susceptible to the virus: frontline workers, poor and working women, prisoners, ICE detainees, the homeless, and anyone with inadequate healthcare. In both epidemics African Americans, Latinxs and Native Americans are the hardest hit.

Healthcare for profit is sick. The health industry profits from disease and the sale of pharmaceuticals. Because AIDS was seen as impacting a minor — and maligned — community, work on HIV was not prioritized. It took two years of mounting deaths before any federal funds were allocated to research. Protests, led by the queer community, pushed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to speed up work on HIV. Eventually, lead scientist Dr. Anthony Fauci, now with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, fast-tracked experimental treatments.

When the first antiretroviral drug hit the market in 1987 it cost $10,000 per year. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) shut down Wall Street in protest. The therapy in use now wasn’t introduced until 1997 — fifteen years after the outbreak began! Today, the epidemic continues to spread, particularly in Africa, where nations and communities cannot afford the medication. To date there are more than 32 million known AIDS deaths worldwide.

Solutions were also hampered by the competitive nature of private enterprise. Biomed researchers whose firms hoped to capitalize on an HIV vaccine worked in secret, hoarding information. This delayed testing — key to controlling spread. And many people refused testing until it was anonymous. A rapid, reliable HIV test wasn’t introduced until 2002!

Fast forward to 2020 and Trump’s Covid-19 testing fiasco. He rejected the World Health Organization kits, then handed production to private enterprise which bungled the job in their haste for big profits. Scarcity of supplies has made testing woefully inadequate.

Alarmed by AIDS, epidemiologists have warned since 1989 that climate change, global travel, poverty and inadequate healthcare would intensify epidemics. To little avail. Largely because emergency preparedness is expensive.

Trump cut the already-reduced budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and in 2018 dissolved the National Security Council’s pandemic response office. Stockpiling lifesaving equipment fell by the wayside, leaving hospitals, states and nations to vie for scarce ventilators in a chaotic market rife with profiteering and fraud. And, privatization over the past decades trimmed medical facilities to bare bones.

Silent no more! Both the AIDS and Covid-19 epidemics expose the fault lines of our make-a-buck system. The have-nots are doomed not just to misery but to infectious disease as well.

A host of queer militants and their allies changed the face of healthcare in the 1980s. In fighting for their lives, they also advanced civil liberties. The message of the gigantic 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the poignant AIDS quilt demonstrated “We’re here, we’re queer, and we are not going back!”

Capitalism has proven itself incompetent to manage this, or future, epidemics and economic crises. Once again, working people are in a fight for their lives — this time encompassing the global 99 percent. Learning from the past can help illuminate the way forward.

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