While New York City starts to come to grips with its deep social and systemic disparities over weeks of protests and outcry, the COVID pandemic still rages strong in our minds. Even as cases in the city start to (slowly) dwindle and people start to (quickly) shed social distancing norms, talks of a second wave and general apprehension regarding a vaccine have kept it at the forefront. But four decades ago, a similar crisis was overtaking the United States and making itself known around the world. It was the AIDS epidemic.
And that’s the topic that Hunter College’s LGBTQ Policy Center sought to address in their June 10 Zoom panel, “Remembering the AIDS Crisis in the Time of COVID-19: How Lessons from One Epidemic can Guide the Response to Another,” at Roosevelt House.
Roosevelt House Director Harold Holzer opened the event with some words about how this being Pride month allowed for the community to reflect on the epidemic from the 80s. Remarks were also provided by Carmelyn P. Malalis, Chair and Commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “What we experience as queer people, as people in New York city, as people grappling with anti-black racism, any of the programs that we can have that bring these issues together is much needed,” she said.
The panelists were individuals with experience in public health, HIV/AIDS research and the LGBTQ community’s struggles with the epidemic. Wafaa El-Sadr, Global Health professor at Columbia University, brought up the main difference she observed in the treatment of COVID-19 as opposed to HIV/AIDS. “The emergence of the COVID pandemic resulted in rapidly trying to identify treatments and find vaccines. And this contrasts, unfortunately, with the early years of the HIV epidemic,” she said. “Whereas we are all aware, it took a lot of battles, a lot of fighting, a lot of advocacy, particularly by gay men and their supporters, to try to move the research agenda forward.”
Lynnette Ford, a senior Vice President at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, added to the point by talking about the attack on minority groups. “Remember the four H’s? ‘Haitians, Hemophiliacs, Homosexuals, and Heroin-users’? Because of this stigma, many from these groups were targeted, shunned, and some even died as a result,” Ford said. “Now, the President of the United States labelled COVID as the Wuhan or Chinese virus, an invasion by an unknown enemy, creating an environment that stigmatized and, in many cases, brought violence to Chinese-Americans.”
The panel discussed a variety of topics, including ageism, the inefficiencies of the government (both past and present), the “heroes” of each period, and more. Even the bias towards the non-white population during the COVID infection and treatment cycle was called out, which Sarit Golub, a psychology professor at Hunter College, noted wasn’t new.
“One real hook we will see between the two epidemics stems from the observation that has been made by many that activism around HIV, in part, has made tremendous strides for white gay cisgender men,” Golub said. “But at times has left out or left behind their non-white and/or transgender siblings. And at some points has even silenced them directly.”
Two other faculty members from Hunter College were on the panel: Manoj Pardasani, Acting Associate Provost for Graduate and Professional Education, and Ruth Finkelstein, Executive Director of Hunter’s Center for Healthy Aging. Both spoke about how the pandemics registered and should be addressed more as social phenomena rather than health crises because of the varying behavioral changes and social biases they revealed.
Another panelist, David France, author and director of the documentary (which is now experiencing a boost on Netflix) “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” mentioned that he was working on a movie about the COVID pandemic. When being asked what a “happy ending” scenario for his movie would look like, he said, “When we get to a place finally, where we recognize that health care is a right. And that health care is something that we, as a society, as human beings owe to each and every one of us.”
Charles Kaiser, author of “The Gay Metropolis” and director of the LGBTQ Policy Center, led the discussion. In a conversation before the panel took place, Kaiser said the amount of fear he saw in today’s world reminded him of the AIDS epidemic. “I can still remember being in a gay bar at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic,” he said, “and seeing potato chips on the bar in a bowl and literally wondering if it was safe to eat one of those potato chips. That was the degree of fear that you had when we didn’t know anything about it.”
While the AIDS-COVID comparison sounds like a foreboding message, the panel ended on a note of hope. In an election year, that hope was just as political as it was humanitarian. Kaiser ended the event with, “I hope we can get some of those 100 million voters who did not vote last time to get to November, to change America, and change our priorities.” And as long as that change signals a return to life and safety (and, let’s be honest, hugging), Americans might just be willing to welcome it.