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AIDS Activists See Parallels in Coronavirus Pandemic

Lessons on resilience from two public health crises

spinner image "People With Aids," March in gay parade. b/w photograph.
"People With AIDS Alliance" marches in a pride parade on June 26, 1983.
Bettmann / Getty Images

Several decades after first seeing him on television, Torie Osborn has had to get used to what she calls “the familiar face” of Anthony Fauci on her screen again.

spinner image People visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, on Thursday, July 5, 2012. An AIDS-free generation: It seems an audacious goal, considering how the HIV epidemic still is ragi
In 1987, Cleve Jones created the first panel of what would become the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt was displayed for the first time during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights that year.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Fauci, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease specialists, was at the forefront of the fight against AIDS beginning with his appointment as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. Today, in that same role, he has been serving on the front lines of another public health crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.

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For Osborn, who was the executive director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center from 1988 to 1992, Fauci’s presence is one small reminder among a broader set of parallels between the AIDS epidemic, which by its peak in 1995 had claimed more than 300,000 lives across the country, and COVID-19, which has so far caused more than 580,000 deaths in the United States alone.

“The first couple of weeks, I was notably re-traumatized,” Osborn says of sheltering in place at home at the start of the pandemic. “I would have flashbacks to the height of AIDS. It was so connected in my psyche, it was an unmistakable connection.”

Osborn is not the only person to feel that way. Many AIDS activists say they see similarities between the two diseases — as well as how lessons from the past can help in the fight against the current pandemic.

The “fault lines” of disease

“I’ve been thinking about the parallels every day,” says Cleve Jones, who cofounded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1983 and later created the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

In his memoir When We Rise, Jones recalls the devastation of AIDS on San Francisco’s vibrant LGBT community — and the initial uncertainty that accompanied a disease about which little was known. “In my heart,” he writes of learning friends were becoming ill in the early 1980s, “I understood that something mysterious and dangerous and new was here.”

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Those adjectives could just as easily be applied to the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020. And Jones says that both diseases have manifested along what he calls society’s preexisting “fault lines.”

The racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates, he says, mirror the ongoing fight against AIDS in Southern states, where infection and death rates are the highest in the country and where Black men and women are disproportionately affected by the disease.

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Differences remain

Still, Jones and others note that there are some key differences between the coronavirus and HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

HIV spreads only through direct contact with infected bodily fluids like blood, whereas the coronavirus is thought to pass from person to person when an infected person breathes out virus-containing respiratory droplets and small particles, which can then be inhaled or land in the eyes, nose or mouth of others.

As a result, the measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 prior to the mass rollout of vaccines, like avoiding large gatherings and staying 6 feet apart from others in public, made the sort of community gatherings that helped sustain the LGBT community during the height of the AIDS crisis, such as bedside vigils, practically impossible.

“The LGBT community rose up first to take care of our own, but then to memorialize people,” Osborn says. “The memorial services and the funerals became organizing events. Visits to the hospital with a group of people surrounding bedsides, visiting people when they were sick or dying at home — there were always other people there.”

Osborn attended a funeral for someone who died of COVID-19 using the videoconferencing tool Zoom last year. “It’s not the same, to not be able to gather,” she says. “Human beings need communal, real-life, real-time connections.”

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Looking to the future

While the science and prevention of AIDS and COVID-19 are different, Kyriell Noon, formerly the executive director of the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project, says that his expectations about the possibility of a vaccine for COVID-19 were nonetheless shaped by the medical community’s response to AIDS.

While HIV is now treatable with antiviral drug regimens, no vaccine — a long-held hope in the fight against AIDS — yet exists, despite promising advances in recent years.

But in another sense, Noon is hopeful. Just as the AIDS crisis generated positive change despite immense tragedy — like galvanizing a sense of unity among the broader LGBT community and advancing public health initiatives — he hopes that the coronavirus pandemic might lead to outcomes that benefit society as a whole.

Noon’s current work with the homeless community in San Francisco, for example, has benefited from a city government that is now open to ideas — like allowing unhoused people to stay in vacant hotel rooms — that wouldn’t have gained traction just a few months ago.

“This is an extraordinary time, and it’s an extraordinary opportunity,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m the only one who feels that way. I think there are a lot of us who are thinking: Let’s seize the moment and fix things that have been broken for a while.”

Editor's note: This article, originally published June 5, 2020, has been updated to reflect the latest details regarding the coronavirus pandemic.     

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