Ray Ajemian: This has happened to us before

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 - 3:00pm

Everyone treats it like a death sentence, even when it’s just a cough. Stores close their doors, people keep their distance. Most infected people don’t know they have it, so it spreads uncontrollably, eager to kill the moment it finds a compromised immune system. It’s not coronavirus, it’s HIV.

The media, medical experts and politicians alike have shown us time and time again the federal governments response to COVID-19 has been unsatisfactory for a virus of its scope. Americans expect our government to take proper action to protect us — as they should. Rewind four decades or so, though, and you’ll find that most people didn’t mind the radio silence.

The first reported cases of HIV in the United States were in 1981 (though an unknown number of cases existed before the turn of the decade), kickstarting the nightmarish epidemic. In just its first year, HIV infected 270 people and killed 121. Despite the numbers and despite being more or less equally fatal among everyone — it is not the virus itself that kills but the deterioration of the immune system, thereby leaving everyone equally vulnerable. The death toll continued to rise before peaking in 1995 with around 50,000 deaths. Even today, HIV kills thousands; in 2016, it was the ninth-largest cause of death for Americans aged 25 to 44, killing more than 6,000 people. Despite this, modern America seems to treat HIV like it isn’t severe, even though the disease is called an epidemic by the United Nations, something that likely won’t change until 2030, at the earliest.

How could a disease stay this deadly for so long in a nation as rich and powerful as the U.S.? Simply put, our government allowed it to.

At the outbreak of the epidemic, it was impossible not to notice that almost everyone with HIV was a gay man. It was so apparent that the virus was originally labeled GRID, gay-related immune deficiency, by the medical establishment (though this often goes unacknowledged because it subtly supports the rhetoric that HIV is “God’s punishment” for being gay) and the “gay plague” by the general public. It wasn’t until 1983, when women were diagnosed with it, that anyone thought it could be transmitted heterosexually, but this knowledge went under the radar because those cases were vastly outnumbered by those of gay men.

Because it was a “gay plague,” the government treated it as such. Homophobia became increasingly intertwined with public policy during the election of Ronald Reagan, putting an end to the post-Stonewall surge in LGBTQ+ civil rights. In 1982, Reagan’s press secretary (and others in the room) openly laughed when asked whether the White House was monitoring the disease, saying, “I don’t have it, do you?” That year, the death toll would reach 618, a five-fold increase from the 121 deaths the previous year. In 1984, Health and Human Services officially discovered the virus and promised a vaccine by 1986; the vaccine still doesn’t exist despite a successful proof-of-concept. A year later, Reagan finally said the word “AIDS” in public — by this time the death toll had surpassed 12,000.

If not for the work of gay activists, even less action would have been taken. Community leaders formed health centers like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and promoted safe sex (a practice that even the medical community was not yet teaching) as early as 1982. Gay establishments closed themselves to slow the spread. As AIDS prevention campaigns grew, the government suppressed them. In 1987, Reagan signed into law a ban on the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education programs that “promoted” (that is to say, acknowledged) homosexuality. Campaigns that were eligible for funding disingenuously claimed that everyone was at risk, siphoning resources away from the masses of dying gay men and toward the few heterosexual HIV-positive people. In theory, this campaign could have destigmatized the virus and fought the “gay plague” reputation, but in practice, it did the opposite, as gay men grew even more disproportionately affected once resources were diverted into other communities.

Finally, we come to coronavirus, and the parallels are frightening. The response of our current president isn’t much better than Reagans was. He claims that “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Declaring coronavirus as not an “American” disease but a Chinese virus echoes the rhetoric about HIV being a “gay” disease and displays xenophobia. President Donald Trump has put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of handling the disease, a man who actively worsened Indiana’s HIV outbreak as governor by preventing needle exchange programs (even his own party supported them) and cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, the only clinic offering HIV tests in the affected area. Even in the ’80s and ’90s, AIDS activists were protesting the inaction of a certain New York City mayor named Rudy Giuliani — now the President’s attorney. Those running our government have long since proven that they cannot, or will not, properly handle an epidemic, let alone a pandemic.

However, just as the public was partially at fault with HIV, our approach to the coronavirus reflects the shortcomings present during the AIDS epidemic. Like HIV, COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally; the elderly are at much higher risk for severe or fatal cases. The rush to close establishments has prioritized schools and colleges — in Michigan, every K-12 school is closed until April 5 — despite the 0.2 percent fatality rate for college-age people, and those under the age of nine not having any recorded fatalities. Closing nursing homes has been discussed less frequently despite the much greater risk residents face. The repeated failure of most U.S. nursing homes to control previous infections is being all but ignored — less than 10 percent of infection prevention specialists in American nursing homes have any sort of training or certification. Although quarantining youth is effective at preventing young carriers from potentially spreading it to the elderly, we know a certain demographic is at heightened risk but fail to focus our resources on helping those groups, favoring an “everyone at risk” narrative.

Our country’s response to coronavirus is failing. Most know this because they are being told so on the news, but gay Americans know it from lived experience. And yet, we are making the same mistakes and giving those who failed us 40 years ago the power to fail us again. This has already had a hefty human price tag. During its first year, 121 people died of HIV in America; it is mid-March, and COVID-19 has killed at least 108 Americans. That number will only rise until we learn to acknowledge what we have done and continue to do wrong: othering and blaming those with deadly diseases, misproportioning resources and electing malevolent and inept officials who help us do it all at a bureaucratic level.

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu.