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World AIDS Day: Advocate says if the inequalities that allowed AIDS to spread 40 years ago aren't solved, COVID won't be either

Worldwide there are more than 30 million people living with HIV/AIDs.
Chung Sung-Jun
Getty Images
Worldwide there are more than 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

When Bruce Lang joined the McLean County AIDS Task Force in 1993, he didn’t expect to be in that role for nearly 20 years.

Task forces, he said, are supposed to have “limited lifetimes — they’re supposed to be over when the crisis is.”

But the crisis never ended, even though the task force in 2014. By then, there were just two task force members left, Lang said, so they decided to close and donate the “considerable” amount of money leftover to another nonprofit that provided case management services to McLean County residents.

But Lang’s work didn’t stop there.

He moved on to working with the Prairie Pride Coalition and the Illinois HIV Action Alliance, among other groups, and presented at local World AIDS Day observations. Some of the work he does now is not HIV-specific, but other parts of it still are.

“I don’t get tired of talking about it — I can’t,” he said Wednesday on World AIDS Day. “I consider it one of my responsibilities to the community. I do get tired of continuing to need to talk about it.”

Although the first cases of what is now known as HIV/AIDS were reported in the U.S. 40 years ago, some world leaders are renewing a call to address ongoing inequalities that contribute to the epidemic.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDSissued a report earlier this week saying that if “transformative measures needed to end AIDS are not taken,” there could be an additional 7.7 million people worldwide who die of AIDS-related causes in the next 10 years.

The report also noted that if “leaders fail to tackle inequalities… the world will also stay trapped in the COVID-19 crisis and remain dangerously unprepared for the pandemics to come.”

In the U.S., 34,800 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2019 and about 1.2 million people were reported as living with the diagnosis.

The impact of the virus, according to analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “continues to have a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, gay and bisexual men… and transgender women.”

“Everything is tied together,” Lang said. “I saw that in the '80s, I saw that in the '90s and I still see it. It’s all connected: HIV is connected with racism, it’s connected with poverty, it’s connected with the American caste system of the financial elite — none of these things stand alone and they all have an effect on the outcome of public health.”

Asked if those issues were why he is still involved in advocacy work, Lang’s answer was simple.

“Basically, yes,” he said. “The need is still there.”

To show evidence of that need, Lang pointed to the debut of new clinic hours at the Community Health Care Clinic in Normal earlier this year.

In June, Peoria-based nonprofit Central Illinois Friends (CIF) announced a partnership with Community Health Care Clinic and Carle BroMenn Medical Center — which owns CHCC's property — that allows the group to offer free HIV testing, free PrEP medication and LTGBTQ+-friendly health services out of CHCC's office in Normal on alternating Friday afternoons.

CIF executive director Deric Kimler said at the time that the clinic hours were aimed at serving people who "fall through the cracks" of traditional health care systems. He pointed to LGBTQ+ people, Hispanic people, sex workers and people struggling with homelessness or abuse as examples.

"It's having services provided in an atmosphere where you're accepted as a real human being," Lang said. "It just puts a completely different complexion on health care."

While heartened by the advances in LGBTQ+-specific health care, Lang emphasized the point that keeps him going 40 years into the AIDS pandemic: More work is needed.

As the U.S. approaches its second year since the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed inside its borders, Lang believes there won’t be a solution for that pandemic until there’s also a solution to the ongoing AIDS pandemic.

“I don’t think you can treat them both separately,” he said. “I think to be successful, you will have to look at solving both pandemics, because the solutions will be similar.”

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.