The AIDS Crisis : A Pandemic of Cruelty
“American gays, at least younger ones, had worked through their self-hatred in the post-Stonewall 70s but that internalised homophobia had come back with the AIDS stigma in the 1980s,” said Edmund White, LGBTQIA+ rights activist who lived during the AIDS crisis. “We knew we were a hated community; relatives wouldn’t let us hold their babies.”
By Hasitha Durgavajjhala
For many, the 1980s were defined by lightsabers, canned laugh tracks in sitcoms, and moonwalking. Nostalgia would have us believe it was a time as innocent as the animated musicals of the era. The harsh truth, however, is that it was a time of increasing tension and social divides, even as the voices demanding equality grew louder. The AIDS crisis is a perfect example of this – a problem that affected marginalized communities was laughed off while it could still have been dealt with, and only taken seriously once it was far too late.
HIV likely first infected humans in Africa – specifically in the city of Kinshasa (now in the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1920s. From there, it traveled across Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean through the 1960s, before reaching the United States of America in 1970. There it exploded across the nation unchecked, spreading further to Europe and Asia.
By the time research about the disease had started, six years had already passed since it’s identification, with a body count over forty thousand. The reason for the delay despite the massive death toll was simple – it seemed to specifically affect a marginalized sect of society.
The Gay Plague
In 1981, there emerged a pattern of young and healthy men dying of unexpected diseases across New York and Los Angeles. Once it was found that the people affected were almost exclusively homosexual men, the response quickly turned to apathy, and, worse, mockery. Officials insisted on calling the disease, Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), and the news refused to cover it, adding further to the mystique of this already stigmatised condition. Over the course of the decade, the disease exploded across the country, infecting more than 40,000 people before the administration finally took steps to raise awareness and fund research.
In the early 80s, while the media kept mum about the epidemic, the few officials who were asked about it,used the opportunity to antagonise and mock the LGBTQIA+ community. Larry Speakes, the press secretary of the White House in 1982, when asked about the so-called gay plague in a press conference, famously laughed and responded “I don’t have it”.
Public health officials spent the next few years desperate for funding to study this emerging disease. When it was made clear that no funding was coming, the researchers dipped into the Public Health Emergency Trust Fund – which, needless to say, had been created explicitly for situations like these. In response, the administration cut the budget for both the CDC and the NIH. Community leaders and LGBTQIA+ rights organisations worked tirelessly to remedy the situation – through education, prevention strategies and support for those who tested HIV-positive. However, the impact was severely limited by the administration still bent on denying the problem.
It took the death of the actor, Rock Hudson, a close friend of the then-president, Ronald Reagan, for the administration to finally fund AIDS research in 1985, by which time around 47,000 people had been affected by this disease.
The heartbreaking fact was that the only reason it was not taken seriously was that it mostly affected gay men and black people – two groups which were increasingly marginalized during that time. The USA at the time was seen as becoming more progressive – with the bricks being thrown at Stonewall, and multiple black people achieving political positions.
“American gays, at least younger ones, had worked through their self-hatred in the post-Stonewall 70s but that internalized homophobia had come back with the AIDS stigma in the 1980s,” said Edmund White, LGBTQIA+ rights activist who lived during the AIDS crisis. “We knew we were a hated community; relatives wouldn’t let us hold their babies.”
Stolen land and Stolen lives
The horrors and the lingering effects of colonialism cannot be understated. It has erased cultures, increased political tensions, contributed to economic instability and has a long paper trail of human rights violations. Most of the world had been colonized at some point in history, and many countries still remain under imperial rule to this day.
The continent of Africa is abundant in natural resources. It contains a large mineral and oil reserve, as well as vast forests. The nature of colonialism, however, is exploitative – natural resources attracted imperial powers to Africa, plundering the continent and leaving the people among the poorest in the world, despite the natural treasures of their land.
The first incidence of AIDS was likely in Kinshasa as early as the 1920s. Since then, it has spread across the continent, and this continent is the worst affected by the pandemic. Between the years 1999 and 2000, the number of African people dead due to AIDS was higher than the combined death toll of all the wars in the continent. There are many factors responsible for these high numbers, the major being colonialism, which led to widespread poverty, damage to the familial structures and little to no access to healthcare.
The increasing taxes levied by colonial governments on the African people led to them migrating to find jobs that would allow them to pay their taxes and still be able to fulfill their basic needs of food and housing.. This large-scale migration across the continent played a huge role in the early spread of HIV. The movement of these men to different parts of the country – specifically as miners and truck drivers – had two further consequences that are of our interest here. The first is the dissolution of the family unit, with the fathers and husbands living apart from the family for months at a time, leading to many taking up extra-marital relationships to cope with the loss of family structures . The second is the movement of the working population to urban cities causing a cycle of poverty and higher spread of the disease to new places.
Aside from taxation, there were many measures taken by colonial governments to undermine the rights of the people as well as to deepen tensions. The effects are too many and too complex to describe , but suffice to say they left a significant impact those people to this day. Post-colonisation, these regions became unstable – both politically and economically – making them ill-equipped to deal with this growing epidemic. The result was the rapid spread of HIV across the continent and the linked death toll -now over 15 million.
The AIDS pandemic was not an isolated problem – it was exacerbated by, and in turn has impacted, a myriad of socio-political and economic factors. Today it is manageable with antiretroviral medication available in the market but even that is not accessible to everyone. However, reaching this point where sufficient research has been done to find such management and treatment options was not simple. This path has been lined with blood that need not have been shed.
Until the day this disease is eradicated, if that day ever comes, it is important to keep fighting for the people affected so that proper management and care can be developed and given to improve their quality of life. This includes eliminating poverty and poor hygiene and educating the general public on the truths of the disease – including its tragic past.
The AIDS crisis, particularly in the 80s, was a perfect mirror for the dangers of societal biases and discrimination. It made it clear how those in power lacked empathy, and exactly how negotiable the lives of those in marginalized sects were to them. While it is tempting to think we have solved these problems now, it is important for all of us to take some time to examine our biases and find where they are rooted, and how to remove them. The AIDS pandemic should stand as a reminder that the price of hatred could easily be human lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:-
Hasitha is a student pursuing a Master’s degree in biotechnology in Noida, India, and co-lead for the SAC Global Health team’s Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. A passionate advocate for mental health and equality. Lover of TV, sunsets and her cat.