Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the AIDS crisis—one of the great public health challenges in the country's history. It changed the way we view science, medicine and the role of government during a national emergency.
For World AIDS Day, advocates are reflecting on lessons learned and shortfalls relived.
Many call the COVID-19 pandemic "unprecedented." Those affected by the HIV epidemic of the 80s and 90s say that's not quite true. They see parts of history being repeated.
In the beginning, both diseases were little understood and greatly feared.
Nearly four decades ago, the Centers for Disease Control identified a "rare lung infection" in a small group of gay men from Los Angeles—a condition we now call AIDS.
Deric Kimler is executive director of Central Illinois Friends. The Peoria-based non-profit focuses on HIV prevention and care.
"The first name we had for it was GRID—the gay-related immune deficiency disorder," Kimler said. "We actually had televangelists on TV saying that this was God's wrath, the kill-off (of) those who are against the word of God and saying that if you are gay, you deserved every bit of it."
Kimler said gay men were gaslighted, blamed for the illness and dismissed as the only group affected. That's even though women, heterosexual men, immigrants and children also contracted HIV.
"Because of the stigma and the ridiculousness of how we treat LGBTQ individuals in this country, a lot of people did hide their their statuses," Kimler said. "Where you see that kind of paralleling with the COVID crisis is how we 'other' the quarter of a million people we've lost so far."
Kimler said he often hears some version of "they were going to die anyway," in reference to older adults and people with underlying health conditions who succumbed from COVID-19 complications.
He said no one wants or deserves to have their life cut short.
"I think when we go down that route, and we paint the entire epidemic with a broad brush of saying, 'Well, it's only these people,' we do a huge disservice to actually taking the right precautions to be able to end the virus and end the epidemic at a quicker rate," Kimler said. "We're still dealing with AIDS crisis today with HIV and AIDS today, because of the stigma."
Kimler said another parallel was the rapidly changing understanding of the virus. For the first five years or so, he said, health authorities didn't know HIV was a blood-borne virus. They thought it was airborne. And some of the efforts to slow it's spread look a lot like what's happening today.
"They said, 'You need to close down the the bathhouses, you need to close down the gay clubs,' and the gay community was outraged," Kimler said. "Of course, the owners of the bathhouses and those clubs and the bars were like, 'No, that is an overreach of government. We're not going to shut this down. You're just doing this because we're gay.'"
There's also overlap in the public perception of both health crises, driven by the response of elected leaders.
Bruce Lang served on the McLean County AIDS Task Force from 1993 until it dissolved in 2014. He's currently a board member for the Prairie Pride Coalition.
Lang recalled the disastrous response from then-president Ronald Reagan who ignored the disease. Lang is having deja-vu with President Trump.
"In 1981, we had a president in office who did not utter the word 'AIDS' in public—for six or seven years of his administration. That hurt the cause," Lang said. "This year, we've had a president who barely cared about the COVID crisis. At least that's the public perception I have. And again, it has hurt the people."
Lang said those blamed for the AIDS crisis were ostracized by the Reagan administration, and made to feel their lives weren't important.
"Generally speaking, the attitude of the LGBT community at the time was that nothing was being done about HIV, because the right people were dying from it," Lang said. "People who are gay, and bisexual people who injected drugs and shared works—none of those people seem to be (on) the president's 'friend list.'"
Lang said those attitudes seeped into the public. And it's s no different now.
"I'm seeing a very similar attitude this year concerning COVID. Very anti-science, both times around," Lang said. "There could have been a lot of things done early on in the HIV crisis that weren't done. And it added probably a decade to how long this disease lasted and kept killing people worldwide."
Lang said one key difference is people living with HIV/AIDS still are stigmatized, in ways those with COVID-19 are not.
It took years before health officials, local leaders and the federal government made a concerted effort to address AIDS. Advocates said the COVID-19 response, while imperfect, was at least more swift.
Lang noted while some view the AIDS crisis as a thing of the past, it's still here and may be worse than the coronavirus.
"The big difference is that with HIV, it might not show up for six, eight years for someone who was positive and didn't know it," he said. "With COVID, it'll show up in a matter of days or weeks. And death, when it happens, is certainly more immediate in most cases."
More than 35 million people have died from AIDS since the epidemic began. Lang remembered losing at least one friend a year to the disease during the height of the crisis. Treatment, prevention and an understanding of transmission have come a long way, he said.
Those living with HIV who take antiretroviral medication as prescribed can keep the viral load undetectable. Those with undetectable levels aren't able to transmit the virus. There's still no vaccine, but people at high risk of contracting HIV can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication as a preventative.
Even with these advances, treatment and care isn't available to everyone. Kimler said people are still contracting HIV and dying. That's particularly true of people of color, those who are low-income, unhoused, LGBTQIA+ or fall under a plethora of other socioeconomic determinants of health.
Kimler said the only way to ensure we don't repeat the mistakes of the AIDS crisis is to acknowledge them.
"The first 20 years of the AIDS epidemic, I think we need to relive and have some hard conversations about what we did to certain populations during that time," he said.
Prairie Pride Coalition, Central Illinois Friends, Positive Health Solutions, and the Delta Sigma Theta Peoria Alumnae Chapter collaborated on a virtual AIDS Memorial Quilt. Panels featuring local community members who died from AIDS complications can be found on Prairie Pride's Facebook page.
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