In January 2020, nothing stood out to me when reading the BBC News article, “China pneumonia outbreak: Mystery virus probed in Wuhan.” Not even when I read the second sentence, “A total of 44 cases have been confirmed so far, 11 of which are considered ‘severe.’” In retrospect, the news was eerily similar to the now famous 1981 New York Times article with the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”
I was too young to read the New York Times in 1981, but I’ve spent a lot of time the last 20 years thinking about how different the world would be if that early headline had been taken more seriously.
Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and yet I still was not overly concerned by the 2020 BBC article, likely for the same reasons so many dismissed the 1981 New York Times article that unceremoniously heralded the start of the AIDS pandemic. “It’s so far away.” (China, in the case of COVID, while AIDS seemed to be striking New York and San Francisco.)
“It’s not going to affect me” (because I’m not Chinese, just as in 1981 people took comfort in thinking HIV only affected “homosexuals.”) And, embarrassingly enough, perhaps even a touch of judgment: while I am appalled at those who dismiss HIV because “they brought it on themselves,” I will admit to thinking, “Well, I mean, who eats bats?”
And now, with the benefit of time, the similarities between COVID and HIV and AIDS are startling. There are treatments for both, but cures for neither. There are medical interventions that can prevent both (vaccines for COVID and pre- and post-prophylaxis for HIV) and sadly, both are underutilized thanks to misinformation spread in part by social media “experts.”
The trajectory of both could have been different were it not for the unnecessary politicizing of a public health crisis which led to a delayed government response, costing an incalculable loss of life. There are readily available tools to help protect from both (masks and condoms) but their use is often less directed by science and more affected by society and peer pressure.
The panic and fear that were hallmarks of the beginning of both pandemics led to scapegoating of the groups initially affected, which further led to stigma and violence. A 1986 article in the New York Times quotes a spokesman for Chair of the House Judiciary Committee of Criminal Justice as saying, “It seems clear from the testimony that there have been dramatic increases in violence directed against gay men and lesbians, and the violence seems to be connected with the AIDS problem…”
Similarly, “Amid widespread reports of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans during the coronavirus outbreak,” according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report on COVID and Asian Americans, “32% of Asian [sic] adults say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them,” and “The vast majority of Asian adults (81%) also say violence against them is increasing.” (Research by University of Massachusetts professor Arie Perliger and colleagues found that violent attacks on Asian Americans averaged 8 per year before the pandemic and 81 per year in 2020 and 2021.)
With the stunning parallels between HIV and COVID, we would do well to look back and reflect on what we learned from HIV:
- Our similarities are greater than our differences. This is especially true with disease.
- When any pandemic strikes, the community should work together to care for the sick and listen to healthcare experts.
- AIDS and COVID are caused by viruses – not moral failings.
- Viruses are not political and they don’t discriminate.
- We must not let the lessons of the AIDS crisis go unheeded. We will not be swayed by complacency or fatigue. We will remain steadfast in heeding the science, dismantling the stigma, and working together to keep our community safe.
A lifetime resident of the community, Kirsten Burkhart has served as the Executive Director of AIDS Resource for more than 20 years. She recently founded AR Health; a soon-to-open primary care clinic dedicated to serving medically-stigmatized communities.