As human beings, we have a tendency to look back at our history and compare it to what is happening in the present. This, by and large, is a fairly good thing. We get to learn from our past mistakes and exorcise the ghosts that haunt our cultural memory. However, the recent tendency to compare the COVID19 pandemic to the AIDS crisis is, I believe, a tendency that is rooted in ignorance.
The first time that I saw this comparison made was in mid-summer last year, which compared mask use to prevent the spread of COVID to condom use to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. In theory, this is a fair enough comparison; both items are to be worn to prevent the wearer from transmitting a virus, and both are incredibly effective at reducing spread. In practice, however, it is not quite as simple as this. Masks are readily available to all who need them, whereas condoms were rarely supplied freely and accessibly to young gay men during the AIDS crisis. What’s more, is that the two viruses are spread differently, COVID through droplets and AIDS through sexual intercourse, which means that the methods by which the virus can be prevented are vastly different. Especially in lesser-developed countries, COVID was far easier to control than AIDS because far fewer resources are needed to prevent transmission. Whereas HIV/AIDS requires condoms, sex education, PrEP, and anti-viral drugs to control transmission, COVID can be in large part controlled through masks, self-isolation, and social distancing. Can you see how this just is not equitable?
Another reason the two diseases are often compared is due to demographic concerns. Both COVID and AIDS were constructed in the media as diseases which affected specific population groups. COVID was presented as disproportionately affecting older generations, and HIV/AIDS as centred on gay men. These attitudes lead to people who do not fit into those categories falsely believing the virus is not a risk to them (which leads to them catching it). Nevertheless, these are different demographics, and deserve to be treated as such. A key example is the fact that the elderly are not currently stigmatised in the way that gay men and IV drug users were during the AIDS crisis. A recent Instagram post by @grundyoxford rewrites AIDS headlines as though they were about COVID. Reading something like “I’d shoot my mum if she had Covid” is shocking, and nobody would argue that this is not totally unreasonable (https://www.instagram.com/p/CLFG7_qli4m/?igshid=1ltw80qpo1xi8). But, of course, this was not a headline about COVID. As this post illustrates, we don’t view COVID sufferers in the way that we viewed (and continue to view) HIV/AIDS sufferers. COVID sufferers are victims of selfish individuals, but HIV/AIDS sufferers were (are) viewed as getting what is coming to them for leading a deviant lifestyle. The two are not equitable.
At the time of writing, there have been 2.36 million deaths from COVID19 worldwide, but in just 2004, 2.1 million people died from AIDS related illnesses worldwide. Thanks to the vaccine, COVID deaths will eventually diminish to a negligible amount, but HIV/AIDS continues to ravage populations, killing hundreds of thousands each year since the first cases in 1981. Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist who fundamentally misunderstands science, there is a reason more than immunological differences that we still haven’t found a cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS in forty years, but have several viable candidates for COVID after just one year. Ultimately, comparing parts of our history with parts of our present is a good thing, but it only a good thing when done correctly and sensitively. For example, it is telling that in both the COVID19 pandemic and the AIDS epidemic, black, Asian, and Latinx communities were hit substantially harder than white communities with very little media representation. Alternatively, gay blood activist Ben Weil suggests that disabled people have suffered institutional neglect comparable to the institutional neglect of gay AIDS victims. (https://twitter.com/benvyle/status/1354804374007029763?s=21.) These are just two examples of sensitive and nuanced comparisons of these two catastrophic events. As socially-conscious adults, we need to be nuanced in our representations, otherwise we run the risk of erasing histories that were barely ever visible.