With news outlets buzzing about which celebrities have tested positive for coronavirus, rumors about testing and transmission, as well as a frightening projected death toll, it might be tempting to compare COVID-19 to the initial HIV outbreak in the 1980s, but figures in Capitol Hill’s gay community say, just don’t.
Fred Swanson, Executive Director of Gay City, was unequivocal about the main difference: “With HIV no one cared. It was a joke to the president. It was affecting a community that was hated and reviled, and no one cared about. [We had to] care for ourselves. Nobody else was interested in caring for us. That’s a critical difference now where you have mobilization of local, state, and federal government officials and public spokespeople really advocating for people to implement social distancing, or get testing widely available,” Swanson said.
Swanson witnessed the onset of the HIV epidemic as a young person in the American South. Although his experience wasn’t centered in a big city, the epidemic nearly wiped out a generation of gay men. “We lived through the devastation of funerals,” Swanson said. “People dying. Every week a different funeral.”
HIV/AIDS advocate and speaker Mark S. King wrote, “Tens of thousands of people died of AIDS-related complications before our government began to address it. Many, many, many of those people spent their last breaths in the center of protests in the streets, begging for justice and relief. Their ashes were dumped on the White House lawn.”
Brian Minalga, a project manager in the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, cautioned that any parallels made between COVID-19 and HIV should be trauma-informed.
“In the 80s and 90s we were literally fighting for our lives,” Minalga said. “This has created a deep trauma that lasts for generations. When we hear these comparisons to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, it’s a reminder of how expendable our lives were at that time, and still are now.”
At its height in the mid 1990s, AIDS killed around 50,000 people a year in the United States and had become the leading cause of death among all Americans ages 25 to 44.
Minalga did offer one comparison: coronavirus follows “the path of social inequity the same way that HIV follows the path of social inequity.” The most vulnerable people in our society bear the greatest burden of an epidemic: people who are chronically underhoused, drug users, immunocompromised people, and people of color.
Comparing COVID-19 to HIV can be painful and problematic, especially for those whose communities were most devastated by HIV. For those individuals, there were no regular presidential briefings, stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, or mobilization around rent freezes. Add to that the fact that we’re still in the midst of the HIV epidemic. Minalga said, “We still have 40,000 people contract HIV every year in the United States, and most of those 40,000 are the people that our society doesn’t value.”
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