by Joe Siegel
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a large toll on the United States in the last month. To date, there are over a half million people suffering from COVID-19 and more than 22,000 deaths. Worldwide, as of this writing, there have been over 1.9 million people reported with COVID-19 and over 116,000 deaths.
Many are comparing certain aspects of this current pandemic to that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. According to the World Health Organization, 32 million people have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic out of the 74.9 million who have been infected. 770,000 died from the disease in 2018.
Emmy Award-winning journalist Hank Plante, one of the first openly gay television reporters in the country, covered the AIDS epidemic on a regular basis.
In an interview with Press Pass Q, Plante noted individuals with COVID-19 are not being vilified the way gay men with AIDS were in the 1980s.
“People with the coronavirus are being met with sympathy, but generally no one cared about people with AIDS except for gays and lesbians, a few politicians, and some — but not all — health care workers,” Plante said. “Today, of course, everyone cares about this new disease because everyone’s health is on the line, and it affects more than just marginalized groups like we were.”
Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, offered a similar take. “We were made to feel ashamed. It was the gay disease, very different than today. The major similarity is the incompetence of our government to deal with it early.”
“The biggest difference is the urgency I suppose,” added Troy Masters, editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Blade. “It was our crisis alone, we were pariahs, abused and largely ignored until the tide turned due to the efforts of activism. With COVID-19, the outbreak was not specific to any one group of people and the urgency has been breathtaking.”
Masters sees some similarities regarding which medications are being proposed to treat COVID-19.
“Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine reminds me of the desperate use of AZT, the first drug that showed anecdotal evidence but turned out to be poison,” Masters said. “From that experience and because there was a lack of drugs and a very slow development process, ACT-UP formed to in part urge a quicker path to approvals for drugs that showed better efficacy but did not embrace every drug that came along regardless of efficacy. Both TAG (treatment activists group) within ACT-UP and many of the actions taken by ACT-UP itself were deeply data-driven and opposed by many of the drug companies and agencies, leaders and community members that blocked progress.”
During the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, added Segal, “The only information we could get was what LGBT media gave us. LGBT media was our lifeline. Today, every form of media is getting information out.”
Plante also noted the difference between news coverage now and then. “The news coverage is quite different today in that it is ubiquitous. Very few of us in the mainstream media were covering AIDS in the beginning. President Trump talks about the coronavirus everyday, but that’s because he sees it as a public relations battle and a re-election threat. President Reagan, on the other hand, never said the word ‘AIDS’ until five years into the epidemic.”
Plante also pointed out that in the 1980s Dr. Anthony Fauci, now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “was and is the voice of scientific reason.”
“Nancy Pelosi was a new member of Congress in 1986 and made her top priority dealing with AIDS in her San Francisco district,” Plante added. “Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was then-mayor of San Francisco, had an AIDS budget for her city that was bigger than Reagan’s AIDS budget was for the entire nation. And healthcare workers are once again risking their lives to save their patients from a mysterious virus that appeared suddenly, and whose end we can’t foresee.”