The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of a health care system pounded by decades of alternating Republican and neoliberal Democratic rule in Washington—the lack of access that many people have, the insufficient capacity to treat patients during an emergency, the extreme shortage of needed supplies. And it has demonstrated the financial insecurity of a significant portion of the population. But it also has shown how people can come together, and especially how those on the front line are prepared to work beyond the limits of what seems possible in order to save lives.
As a gay man who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s (I do not remember the word “pandemic” being used in those years), it is impossible for me not to draw dramatic and enraging contrasts between the response to AIDS and the response to COVID-19, and not to see how much the former has influenced the latter. When Donald Trump began his daily briefings, there were perhaps 400 deaths in the nation. By contrast, Ronald Reagan did not give his first public speech about AIDS until almost six years into the epidemic, at which point the death toll exceeded 25,000 in the United States. Within weeks of the first COVID-19 death, media outlets overflowed with coverage commemorating the lives of those lost to the pandemic and celebrating the health care workers, first responders, and community volunteers who risk their own health to provide necessary services to the ill.
During the AIDS epidemic, the media barely acknowledged the spread of AIDS until a well-known celebrity—Hollywood icon Rock Hudson—was revealed to have AIDS. When media did cover the topic, they tended to do so in ways that placed blame on people with AIDS, as in the New York Post headline of October 6, 1987: “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS.” In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, stories circulated within the LGBTQ community of hospitals and medical staff who would have nothing to do with someone who had AIDS. A Newsweek cover announced that “fears are growing that the AIDS epidemic may spread beyond gays … to threaten the public at large.”
But the AIDS epidemic also produced a transformative response from the LGBTQ community. Massive numbers of people came out, joined organizations, and engaged in politics and protest. The budgets of community organizations, both service-oriented and activist, grew dramatically. Paid staff became far more common. The resources available to LGBTQ people-of-color organizations reached an unprecedented level. By the end of the 1980s, the major story about AIDS had become the direct-action protests occurring across the country as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) groups took to the streets.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the LGBTQ community had become a recognized, though still controversial, political constituency in national politics. Congress finally passed legislation, such as the Ryan White Care Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, that acknowledged the need to respond to AIDS. Homophobia and oppression are still with us, of course, but we can see positive changes as a result of that epidemic.
These long-term effects of the AIDS epidemic reverberate as I think about the current health crisis. So many issues—guaranteeing access to health care, the right to at least a basic financial security, and the need of workers to have a collective voice—have surfaced with urgency. And the efforts of protesters in many places around such issues as canceling rent payments and preventing evictions suggest that some are ready to take action. Can a virus that infects—pardon the expression—“the public at large” have the power to bring people together to effect permanent, progressive change? Will this pandemic give legislative agendas like the Green New Deal more plausibility? It will not be until the results come in from the fall elections that we will know whether the pandemic will have raised a broad and deep enough dissatisfaction with the Trump White House and the Republican Senate to open some doors to a progressive agenda. We must make sure that the answer is yes.