As Pride month comes to a close, we reflect on 40 years ago when the world lived through another epidemic that suffered from misinformation and government inaction — the AIDS crisis. In this episode, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta speaks with CNN National Political Writer Brandon Tensley about lessons from the AIDS epidemic that could help the country better manage Covid-19 today.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 1984: This is a new disease, at least in the United States. Where it came from, we’ll discuss in a short while. But in the United States, it’s new.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: You probably recognize that voice by now — Dr. Anthony Fauci. But that wasn’t him talking about the coronavirus — that was him almost 40 years ago, talking about the AIDS epidemic.
In the United States alone, more than 700,000 people have died from AIDS since the early 1980s. And right now, more than 1 million people are currently living with HIV.
So today, as we are dealing with yet another viral outbreak, we thought it was important to look back at our response to the AIDS crisis. Why did so many people die? And why was the government so slow to respond?
So in this episode, we’re gonna share five lessons from the AIDS crisis that could help us better manage coronavirus today.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
David French, CNN anchor: The Reverend Jesse Jackson says the shocking news that Magic Johnson is HIV-positive has awakened Americans to the AIDS crisis.
Brandon Tensley, national political writer, CNN Politics: Coming to age and sort of coming out in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, it’s been interesting to reflect on how deep and how long that shadow is.
Gupta: That’s my colleague Brandon Tensley. He covers the intersection of culture and politics for CNN. Brandon recently wrote this really interesting article about lessons from the AIDS crisis that might apply to coronavirus.
Tensley: You know, even when I was growing up in the ’90s, AIDS still had the reputation of being a death sentence, as being something to avoid at any and all costs. Now when you hear LGBTQ people talk about safe sex practices, there’s just so much more textured and nuanced conversation about how we live with these realities that we live in.
Gupta: So lesson No. 1: misinformation is common — almost expected, in the early stages of a disease. Yes, it takes time for scientists and doctors to figure things out, but also when people are scared, it becomes really easy for false ideas to spread.
For example, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, people thought HIV could spread just by being close to someone infected. Many also believed that only gay people could get the disease.
Listen to Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist pastor who launched the Moral Majority, one of the largest political lobby groups for evangelical Christians in the 1980s.
Rev. Jerry Falwell, 1983: This lethal epidemic sweeping out of control through the homosexual enclaves of America has been turned into a propaganda ploy, in our opinion.
Gupta: Just to be clear, we know these ideas are not true. Anyone can become infected with HIV. While people discriminate, viruses don’t. Also, HIV typically spreads through sexual intercourse, and needle or syringe sharing. Less commonly, it can spread from a mother to child through breast milk.
The point is this: We’ve seen a similar spread of disinformation for Covid-19. And too frequently, it’s even come from our country’s leaders.
You’ll remember in April, President Trump suggested injecting disinfectant could kill the virus.
The CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] immediately clarified saying: “Household cleaners and disinfectants can cause health problems when not used properly.” Hard to believe that sort of clarification was even necessary.
Tranette Ledford, CNN anchor, 1985: AIDS has been called the gay plague. Nearly three quarters of AIDS victims are gay or bisexual.
Gupta: Lesson No. 2: We have to resist the urge to blame a disease on any particular group.
Because Covid-19 first began spreading in Wuhan, China, we’ve seen an uptick in discrimination and violence against Asian people living in the United States. Many, including President Trump, continue to call it the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu.”
For the AIDS epidemic, the problem was homophobia.
Here’s Jerry Falwell again.
Falwell, 1983: But in this country today in America, we are trying to legalize and normalize, as an acceptable alternative lifestyle that which is morally perverted. I speak of premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexual sex.
Commentator: Here you go again, Jerry. You’re talking about moral issues instead of public health issues.
Falwell: Well, I’m speaking of both. I think they’re interrelated. When you break the moral laws of God, you mentally, physically and spiritually pay the price as ordinary — ask any drug addict.
Tensley: Literally anyone can be affected by the coronavirus, just like literally anyone can be affected by AIDS. And so I think the thing is, you know, it’s easy to think like, Oh, it’s affecting this one community in a way that actually just prevents the sort of opportunity to actually come up with policies, with drugs, with medications that actually would most likely be useful for society on a broader scale if we try to sort of shrink it down to only looking at certain people.
People are essentially OK, like, “Oh, if the virus is affecting this group of people, but not necessarily everybody to the same extent, then is that a sacrifice worth making in order for us to sort of keep the, keep the economy open, keep businesses running?”
Gupta: Lesson No. 3: When the government doesn’t respond quickly or effectively, the effects can be devastating.
Listen to this exchange between a reporter and then Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes in 1982. At that point, 1,000 people had died from aids.
Lester Kinsolving: It’s known as “gay plague.” [Press pool laughter.] No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the President was aware of this.
Larry Speakes, former acting White House press secretary: I don’t have it. Are you? [Press pool laughter.] Do you?
Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]
Gupta: The AIDS epidemic began in 1981, a few months into President Reagan’s first term in office. But it was only in 1987 — when almost 23,000 people had died — that the President made his first public address about it.
US President Ronald Reagan, 1987: Our battle against AIDS has been like an emergency room operation. We’ve thrown everything we have into it. We’ve declared AIDS public health enemy No. 1.
Gupta: Activists at the time strongly criticized the President’s delayed response.
University of California, Los Angeles, activists: You murderer, if you’d done something seven years ago, these children wouldn’t have AIDS. You should’ve said something about it, you did nothing when you were in office.
Tensley: When it became clear that HIV was specifically affecting gay communities, specifically gay men, what that led to was a silence and inaction on the part of the government. And this is why later on during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, this is why activists dumped ashes on the White House lawn, as a way to sort of bring front and center — these are the people whom you’ve been ignoring. These are the lives that have been lost because the government actually didn’t do anything.
Gupta: Here’s the problem. We’re seeing this same delayed government response to Covid-19.
President Trump has been out of step with the science and he has downplayed the threat. The government also delayed testing for weeks and failed to ensure that hospitals and states initially had supplies as simple as masks or gloves.
Lesson No. 4: We have to really educate people on how to mitigate risk for the virus as they go about their lives. It’s what experts call a “harm reduction strategy.”
Tensley: Arming people with the knowledge, with information to make smart, informed decisions is, you know, probably better in the longer run, public health-wise, than sort of forcing people into an extreme form of behavior that people after, you know, probably a few months are going to break.
And I think this is something that we saw a lot of during the AIDS crisis in terms of people promoting having safe sex, you know, using protection, but also different forms of sex that are, you know, less risky than others. And these are the sorts of I think, the way of thinking that people are sort of revisiting in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The idea of wearing masks — if I’m wearing a mask and I’m hanging out outside with this person, and we’re at least 6 feet away from each other, is that OK?
Gupta: And finally, lesson No. 5: In all likelihood, this is not gonna be the last pandemic. And we must all be better prepared for whatever the future holds.
Over 700,000 people have lost their lives to AIDS in the United States — an entire generation. It’s a vast number that the LGBTQ community still grapples with today.
Now, we have more than 120,000 lives lost to Covid-19.
Tensley: When you think about what each of these lives contained, what each of these lives could have done, what they could have contributed, what they meant to so many other people, one hundred twenty thousand lives affects so many more people than one hundred twenty thousand lives.
And so I think that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to remember. Because I think it keeps a human dimension to all of this at a time when it’s easy to sort of cut yourself off from other people. But trying to keep it in this sort of context can just really help us not lose sight of the gravity of the situation.
Gupta: As we go through this Pride month, in the midst of a pandemic, in the throes of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at the history books.
So many people died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. We can honor them by learning from what happened and then doing better this time around.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.