How coverage of the coronavirus pandemic compares with the AIDS pandemic
On July 3, 1981, The New York Times reported on a “rare gay cancer”
that had been seen in 41 men. Although no one realized it at the time, the
article by reporter and medical doctor Lawrence K. Altman was the first major
news story on what would become the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It took another year and
two months before the CDC used the term AIDS — acquired immunodeficiency
syndrome — to put a name to the “cancer.”
Nearly 40 years later,
The New York Times reported again on the early signs of a
different global infection. The story from China, published on Jan.
6, 2020, described 59 people sickened in the central city of Wuhan by a
“pneumonia-like illness.” That illness was the coronavirus, or Covid-19, the
disease caused by a viral infection that has spread across the globe.
Stigmas Born of Fear
Because of the stigmas surrounding AIDS as the disease of homosexuals and heroin users, coverage was much more scarce than that of the coronavirus.
comparison,” said Michele Zavos, a Washington D.C.-based attorney at law with a
majority of clients in the LGBTQIA+ community. “The reason for that is because
mainstream culture, the political administration really denigrated gay men, and
in the beginning, it was gay men. And then it spread more to the Black
community and Black women and to drug users, and so it became more and more
widespread. As long as it was gay men, mainstream culture didn’t care, but then
eventually mainstream culture figures started dying, so that started changing.”
Zavos acted as
the director of the American Bar Association’s AIDS Coordination Project — an
initiative to inform lawyers of the legal issues around HIV/AIDS — from 1990 to
1996 and has published articles concerning those legal issues.
She credits Rock
Hudson, a TV and movie star, whose career spanned from 1948 to 1985, with
bringing international attention to the disease. One of the first mainstream
figures to die from AIDS, Hudson searched the world for a cure.
Hawkins, Maryland-based executive director of the DC Community AIDS Network,
who has a doctorate in psychology with a medical specialization, attributes the
lack of coverage in the early years of the AIDS pandemic to the stigmatizations
and fear surrounding the disease.
“My spouse is
also a clinical psychologist, and the other docs wouldn’t even eat lunch with
her” after she began working with AIDS patients, she said. “The same thing
happened with me. They were so afraid of getting the disease because they
didn’t know how it was transmitted.”
of the disease was not the only issue for those working with AIDS patients.
immediately considered to be gay, whether you were or you weren’t, and whatever
attitudes people had toward gay people, they extended toward people with AIDS,”
coronavirus does not have the CDC’s “four h’s” to avoid like AIDS did —
homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians — racist attacks on Asians have increased around
the globe as the coronavirus has spread. President Donald Trump has repeatedly
referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus.”
People of color
also have been disproportionately impacted by the disease. The Los Angeles Times reported on July 19 the infection rate
for Pacific Islanders in L.A. County was six times that of the white
population. The New York Times reported on July 5 the infection rate
for Black Americans tends to be higher because of systemic inequities
that force many into front-line jobs, public transit and close living quarters.
In the Midwest, the first deaths from Covid-19 in Chicago and St. Louis were African-Americans.
Politicization of Human Lives
In the early days
of the AIDS pandemic, President Ronald Reagan allowed the AIDS crisis in
America to accelerate with a lack of attention to safety. Instead, his
administration discredited the severity of the situation.
According to the CDC, between 1981 and 1990, over 100,000
people with AIDS died — Reagan’s presidency lasted from 1981 to
1989. By August, Trump said the coronavirus “is what it is.” Nearly 200,000
Americans have died since the virus was first detected in the United States
half a year ago.
Douglas M. Foster,
Chicago-based writer and professor of journalism at Northwestern University,
pointed out the similarities between Trump and Reagan’s presidencies as one of
the major similarities between the viruses.
was president, and it took him several years of death and dying to even say the
word AIDS,” he said. “His press secretary made jokes about it. If reporters
assigned to the White House asked about it, he would laugh and say, ‘Why? Do
you have it?’”
New Orleans- and
New York-based journalist, author and activist Anne-christine d’Adesky
attributes the politicization of masks to Trump.
hurdles to accessing information and to applying information,” she said. “We
see that today with the mask issue. I truly believe that because President
Trump was and is afraid of not getting reelected, he has adopted an
anti-science platform. He has equated not wearing a mask with personal liberty
and put the lives of millions of Americans and other people at risk for
exploitation of Covid. It’s a tragedy, and it’s very political.”
She said both
AIDS and Covid-19 have been politicized but in different ways. Both, however,
she said, play on fear and prejudice, and the way to fight against that is with
information and informed decision-making.
This is where the
press comes in. Because the Trump Administration continues to spread false
information — for instance, Trump’s renewed push for hydroxychloroquine as a
Covid-19 medication, which Dr. Anthony Fauci, who advised six presidents on the
AIDS pandemic, continues to refute — it is the press’s duty to avoid spreading
misinformation while also reporting that the information he spreads is, as he
would say, “fake news.”
the early stages of that pandemic, there was no useful information in
mainstream media for many years,” Foster said. “There was a sense that
mainstream media didn’t include gay men and lesbians. There was an assumption
that newspapers were family matters, and therefore it would not be appropriate
to use the language that would make clear how the virus was spread — semen and
blood, for example. And there was no explicit mention of various forms of
During the early
years of the AIDS pandemic, people craved knowledge on a disease that was not
being tended to, in large part, by their political and religious leaders. Now,
during the Covid-19 pandemic, what people need is harm prevention from those
knows its own leaders, its own solutions, its own ways to get information,”
said d’Adesky. “It’s going to be the pastors and churches, it’s going to be the
people who do the food banks, it’s going to be the local leaders and it’s going
to be the sports coaches and all these folks who are community leaders who are
going to be delivering the message that’s going to be heard by people within
did not report on AIDS due to the stigmas surrounding the ways it spreads, and
the ramifications of this failure to seek out the truth and report it are
clear, Foster noted.
Medical Masks and Condoms and Dirty Needles
“It’s the human
condition that we would prefer to not look at what may scare us,” said d’Adesky.
“We would prefer not to be uncomfortable, so I think that many people in
America … said, ‘That’s only relevant to people who are engaging in sex that’s
not the sex I engage in.’”
She also cited
the Catholic Church and federal authorities as roadblocks on the way to AIDS
prevention, with the Church’s ban on condoms and the authorities’ reluctance to
accept disposable needles as harm reduction for heroin users.
“There was this
huge campaign about clean needles — wanting people to bring in dirty needles, and
they would get a clean needle, no questions asked,” said Zavos. “Of course, a
lot of the government went berserk over this, [saying,] ‘You’re helping people
be drug users.’”
O’Loughlin, Chicago-based national correspondent for America Magazine: The
Jesuit Review and the host of the podcast “Plague: The Untold Stories of AIDS
and the Catholic Church,” said one criticism of the Catholic Church was it’s
political response to the use of condoms during the early years of the AIDS
explained that while the Catholic Church had some high-ranking bishops who said
condoms were okay as long as they helped prevent the spread of disease instead
of pregnancy, the Vatican and a powerful, conservative group of U.S. bishops
prohibited all use, applied and educational.
“The issue was
the Church is a very powerful player, especially in big cities,” O’Loughlin
said. “It was actually using its political power to prevent public health
education about the effectiveness of condoms.”
Just as studies
have found needle exchanges and condoms have helped to prevent the spread of
HIV, studies have also found masks help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
attributed today’s fear of masks as stemming from the initial concerns of the
Trump administration regarding a scarcity of protective personal equipment
(PPE) and the federal effort to prioritize access of N-95 masks specifically,
to healthcare workers and frontline essential workers.
wearing masks to wearing an awareness AIDS pin in that people are and were
harassed for wearing each in public.
and other media can offer support to the cause of getting everyone on board
with wearing masks is not only to normalize them but to make them cool.
about masks revolve around how to wear them safely, and one New York Times
article pleads in the title for the public to “Seriously, Just Wear Your Mask.”
already done pieces like this — “Are Face Masks the Latest It-Accessory?” and
“5 People on What It’s Like to Have Sex with a Mask On.”
not have to hide from stigmas like they did with condoms and needles. Masks can
be, as Cosmo puts it, “the latest it-accessory.”
Back to the Future
Just as the 1980s
saw the popularization of condoms — due to HIV — and consumerism — due to the
advent of malls and Madonna — the 2020s could see the popularization of masks
due to consumerism. And while looking to the past to inform the future is not a
new concept, it is an important one.
In medicine: From
her work as a clinical psychologist, working with AIDS patients, Hawkins can
foresee that survivor’s guilt could be a heavy burden for former Covid-19
patients and their families to bear in the future.
In hope for a
cure: With his historical research for “Plague: The Untold Stories of AIDS and
the Catholic Church,” O’Loughlin found the cautionary parallel between the
search for the cure of HIV and Covid-19.
“When I see the
stories today about how a vaccine is just a few months away and there might be
one by the end of the year, it makes me cringe a little bit,” he said.
“Obviously science is very different. The coronavirus is not HIV. But there was
this hope for a cure that would end the HIV and AIDS crisis very quickly that
did not materialize. … Science takes time. It takes cooperation. It takes
D’Adesky noted what past journalism on AIDS is doing for current reporting on
“We have applied
and been able to benefit from the lessons of the early AIDS reporting,” she said.
Hoagland-Abernathy is a journalism and playwriting B.A. student at Columbia
College Chicago, where she is the Opinions Editor at the school’s newspaper The
Columbia Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter @shoaglanda.