AIDS Disappeared from Public View Without Ending. Will Covid-19 do the Same?Roundup
tags: AIDS, public health, LGBTQ history, medical history
Dan Royles is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University and the author of To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS.
“AIDS is a lot like ‘SNL’ ['Saturday Night Live'],” quipped comedian Pete Davidson last month, on the finale of the show’s 46th season. “It’s still here, it’s just no one’s gotten excited about it since the ’90s.”
Davidson’s joke came almost exactly 40 years after the first cases of a mysterious rash of infections among gay men in New York and Los Angeles — which would soon be recognized as AIDS — was first reported in the national news. It also pointed to an uncomfortable truth: Although AIDS is still a crisis, with an estimated 34,800 new HIV infections in the United States in 2019, Americans largely no longer treat it as such. The reason? Since the mid-1990s and the advent of highly effective drugs to treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the epidemic has mostly come to affect those who have the least.
As 2021’s Pride Month comes to a close amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, we should think about what it means to live through a pandemic that is fading from public view, even as it shapes and shortens the lives of vulnerable people.
In the early 1980s, the advent of a new, mysterious and deadly disease that was associated with gay men, drug users and Haitian immigrants amplified undercurrents of homophobia, racism, misogyny and xenophobia in American society. The mainstream media and all but a few policymakers were concerned about AIDS only insomuch as it posed a threat to the “general population,” meaning White, straight people. Some argued, quite seriously, that people with AIDS should be quarantined or tattooed, and evangelical Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell described AIDS as “not just God’s punishment for homosexuals,” but “for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
In the face of such hostility, people with AIDS and their allies cared for the sick and dying, filling in gaps in the social safety net that had been deliberately unraveled by President Ronald Reagan and his allies at all levels of government. At the time, there were no effective treatments available for the new disease. The FDA didn’t approve AZT, the first AIDS drug available in the United States, until six years into the epidemic, in 1987. It was not only highly toxic, but also expensive, costing $10,000 a year.
With so few treatments available, AIDS activists pressured government agencies to invest in research for new therapies, fought to speed up the approvals process for new drugs and pushed to make experimental medicines available to the sick. Calling for “drugs into bodies,” they advocated for biomedical solutions to the epidemic.
But many of those same activists also saw the disease as a political crisis, driven by corporate greed, societal neglect and indifference to the suffering of those most affected by the disease, including gay men, drug users and people of color. In 1987, the first demonstration by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) targeted AZT manufacturer Burroughs Wellcome over the drug’s high price. A few months later, the group marched in New York City’s Gay Pride parade with a concentration-camp-themed float to make the point: AIDS was a genocide of neglect against groups that many Americans saw as undesirable or expendable.
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