In the past year, Americans have been confronted with fear, death and isolation in ways some have never known before. To others, the situation is a haunting refrain. The chaos wrought by COVID-19 echoes the AIDS crisis of the 1980s that rattled the LGBTQ community to its core.
The viruses themselves don’t have a lot in common — COVID-19 is an acute condition whereas HIV is chronic. Dr. Nathan Hansen studies HIV treatment and care at the University of Georgia and said the viruses attack different areas of the human body. SARS-CoV-2 attacks the lungs and heart, and HIV attacks T cells, which make antibodies and kill other infected cells.
“HIV is one that is, in some ways ... kind of a fascinating virus in that it’s really long lasting,” Hansen said. “It takes 10 years or so, generally, to where it sort of wears out the immune system, and then you’re vulnerable to other infections, whereas COVID does a lot more damage. It’s just a lot more aggressive in the system.”
The death tolls from the viruses differ as well. Since 1981, around 700,000 Americans have died from AIDS, which is caused by HIV. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has killed nearly 500,000 Americans since the first U.S. death on Feb. 6, 2020.
The crises caused by the viruses bear similarities at the social and political levels. Both were politicized in different ways — mask-wearing during the pandemic became a partisan issue, and the AIDS crisis became a moral panic.
According to the Pew Research Center, 43% of the American public in 1987 agreed with the statement, “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”
“Coming as somebody who has only been living in the U.S. for seven or eight years, it’s very marked to me, how policy — whether it’s social policy, whether it’s health policy — it does seem to be impacted by other factors other than health, whether that’s a religious component,” said Chris Richards, assistant director of Live Forward, an Athens-based HIV/AIDS advocacy group.
Certain groups became scapegoats in each outbreak. During the AIDS crisis, many blamed gay men for the disease, which was sometimes even called GRID —gay related immune deficiency. Meanwhile, COVID-19, first detected in Wuhan, China, has been called derogatory names.
Two Asian American advocacy organizations each reported more than 2,800 incidents of anti-Asian American discrimination in 2020. As of September, Asian Americans suffered roughly 15% of reported hate crimes in 2020.
As a result of the AIDS crisis, men who have sex with men were banned from donating blood from 1985 until 2015, and even now there is still a three-month waiting period.
The government has been criticized for its responses to both outbreaks.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 58% of Americans disapproved of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as of January 2021. With shortages of personal protective equipment, inconsistent state and local responses and a subpar vaccination rate, the U.S. underperformed in curtailing COVID-19’s deadly spread.
“I’m still trying to figure out how a country such as the United States can’t figure out how to get mass vaccinations completed,” said Jamey Watson, president of the AIDS fundraising group Boybutante.
Latent homophobia froze the government response to the emerging AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Press conferences from 1982 and 1984 revealed the Reagan administration, as well as members of the press, regarded it as a joke, laughing about a “gay plague.” Even after more than 4,200 people had died from the illness, the White House press secretary admitted the president wasn’t addressing the epidemic.
“The initial response to COVID, though, I felt like got way more attention than the initial response to HIV/AIDS,” Watson said. “It was almost like, ‘Well they, they being the gay community, chose this. They got this because of their lifestyle.’”
The viruses disproportionately impact marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community. In a double jeopardy, people with HIV/AIDS, many of whom are LGBTQ, have higher risks of contracting COVID-19 if they are not on effective HIV treatment.
A COVID-19 issue brief from the Human Rights Campaign indicates LGBTQ people are more likely to work in high exposure fields, tend to be poorer and experience health care disparities.
“[An] AIDS activist said that, ‘If you want to find where injustice is in a society, look for the HIV,’ and it’s like a big arrow pointing at the social injustice within that system or society,” Hansen said. “I think COVID follows very similar patterns.”