COVID-19 Shows How Little We Learned from the AIDS Epidemic
As someone who is living with HIV and has learned a lot about the AIDS epidemic over the years, the parallels are staggering.
COVID-19 has quickly taken center stage in the lives of virtually everyone around the globe. As things have unfolded over the last couple of months, I can’t help but notice aspects of this pandemic that feel familiar. As someone who is living with HIV and has learned a lot about the AIDS epidemic over the years, the parallels are staggering.
I want to be clear that what I offer and observe below isn’t meant to equate Coronavirus/COVID-19 with HIV/AIDS. To do so would be irresponsible and ignore plenty of noteworthy differences. This is also, by no means, an exhaustive breakdown.
1. Governmental negligence
Learning that the Trump administration actually knew about the threat of coronavirus for months but opted to downplay, if not ignore it, immediately felt akin to the Reagan administration’s dismissal of the AIDS epidemic as it was growing in the 1980’s. In both cases, every day spent not raising awareness and allocating resources towards research, treatment and other assistance against the virus unnecessarily cost more and more lives.
2. Transferring responsibility from systems to individuals
One of many changes brought on from COVID-19 has been the emergence of social distancing — a practice where people physically distance themselves from each other to slow the spread of the virus. While this is an important practice that we should all be taking up where feasible, I’ve grown concerned that the impulse to shame people who don’t perfectly adhere to it is taking precedence over the larger issue—that this pandemic has been exacerbated by aforementioned systemic negligence.
What heightens my concern that we’re collectively placing more emphasis on individual actions over government responsibility is observing how a very similar mindset has affected discourse around HIV/AIDS for decades. Of course, it’s useful, and even necessary, to encourage preventative measures that individuals can take to slow transmission of these viruses. But for too long, the focus on social habits of individuals has taken precedence over the reality that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is more so a result of systemic neglect. The same idea applies for COVID-19.
I’ve mentioned how virtually everything about our systems greatly worsen the impact of a pandemic, and we’re seeing it materialize in more and more ways. From people having to leave their homes to work, to the strain that people are put under by no longer being able to work, the limits of our privatized, for-profit “healthcare” system, etc. This isn’t unlike how various socioeconomic barriers keep many people from accessing needed resources around HIV.
But instead of focusing our energy on challenging the system for all the ways it put us in a position where we may have to be in the house for months, and working to radically change it for the better, our energy is focused on scolding people who don’t behave “perfectly” in these times. I just believe it’s always more useful to punch up at the primary source of the issue.
3. Reinforcing the prison industrial complex
Once shelter-in-place orders started taking hold around the country, it felt inevitable that police enforcement would follow. Workers who’ve been deemed “essential” (and are more likely to be Black) are still having to leave their homes to work, which means that they’ll likely be approached and questioned by police. We’ve seen countless instances play out where policies that call for increased interactions between police and civilians just make abuse and criminalization of (disproportionately) Black people more likely.
This all reminds me of the AIDS epidemic because, as I’ve talked about previously, we’ve also seen laws passed around the country, criminalizing HIV/AIDS at the height of the epidemic. Many would likely argue that those laws were necessary for the time. But I would argue that, had the Reagan administration taken the epidemic seriously when it first came onto their radar, it may never have gotten to the point of “needing” criminalization. Especially since, in more recent times, these laws have more so been abused to criminalize people living with the virus, while not actually helping to prevent new transmissions.
Angela Y. Davis once said, “the [prison industrial complex] serves as an institution that consolidates the state’s inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems…” And similarly to the HIV/AIDS criminalization laws passed, dependence on punitive measures to enforce shelter-in-place is a reflection of this system’s inability, if not refusal, to push many of the policy changes that can help provide actual relief and safety.
4. Used to justify bigotry against a marginalized group
Another issue in the wake of this pandemic is an increase in discrimination and violence. We’ve seen fear and bigotry pushing people away from Chinese-owned businesses and neighborhoods. We’re also seeing a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
Really, this is all nonsensical because, while the virus is said to have originated in China (although, there’s some evidence questioning even that), we know that the virus making it to the U.S. is mostly due to travel from Europe (so much so that a travel ban from the entire continent is in effect, as of me writing this piece). Yet, for some reason, we haven’t seen a notable increase in people refusing to order from Italian restaurants.
Similarly, the increase of discrimination and bigotry against LGBTQ people as result of the AIDS epidemic, which still continues to this day, has always been nonsensical. I’ve discussed before how anti-HIV stigma (also known as “serophobia”) has long been specifically weaponized against gay (and bisexual) men, and how I don’t believe it’s out of concern for public health. In actuality, the virus is a convenient excuse for people to feel justified in their biases against people most associated with it.
But like HIV/AIDS, the bigotry emboldened by COVID-19 is not only wrong, but counterproductive. Regardless of where it originated, anyone is susceptible to contracting and passing it…and, again, the more dire consequences of this pandemic are primarily due to the inability of our systems to maintain it. Whether it’s the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s or the COVID-19 pandemic today, it’s unfortunate that many people still haven’t learned how useless punching horizontally and down is in times like these.
5. Disposability of human lives in a capitalist system
Reagan decided that the lives most affected by the AIDS epidemic were expendable (even “getting what they deserved”) and chose hostility and silence over compassion and support. It’s long been understood that the dismissal was directly tied the fact that the people most likely to be killed by the virus were gay and/or Black. And this underscores how many of the groups that humans have been arbitrarily categorized under in the white supremacist imagination are used to decide which lives are more expendable. The system of social stratification and disposability being heavily informed by structurally and socially marginalized identities is a very real dynamic and is the basis of much of this country’s very existence.
How human disposability has functioned in today’s pandemic is different, but connected. Toward the end of March, only a very brief time after policies to slow COVID-19’s spread were being proposed and implemented, capitalists immediately started panicking over lost revenues. So now there are debates on whether the priority should be the preservation of human lives, or returning to business as usual (prematurely) to restore the economy. For example, Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor of Texas, suggested that the elderly should be willing to die to preserve the economy (given that older people are said to be more susceptible to dying from COVID-19).
Juxtaposing these two situations reminds me that, while we live in a system that has created hierarchies where certain lives are more expendable than others, what it ultimately comes down to is preserving a system that mainly benefits the 1% at everyone else’s expense. Even highly publicized mass shootings like Sandy Hook showed that, when things get bad enough, even the lives we understand as the most prized can also become disposable when it comes to ensuring the social order is maintained.
In that sense, an important lesson from the AIDS epidemic should have been that the ways we treat the most vulnerable communities can easily trickle up to people who always assumed they’d be protected in this system. We could’ve seen how communities were ravaged by AIDS and pushed for more radical and transformative policies to alleviate the suffering then, which could’ve been useful for fighting COVID-19 today. We could’ve learned that a socioeconomic system dependent on punishment, deprivation, and even death, to thrive is a system that needs to be dismantled and transformed.
We didn’t learn those lessons from the AIDS epidemic. But if anything good could come from such a devastating pandemic, perhaps it would be us finally learning the lesson that human life is more important than a stubborn commitment to “normalcy” and “business as usual.”