Stop comparing the response to coronavirus to the early response to AIDS. It’s insulting.

Ken Meeks, AIDS patient, San Francisco, 1986.
Ken Meeks, AIDS patient, San Francisco, 1986. Photo: Alon Reininger/Contact Press Images

People ask me if our lives today feel like the early years of HIV/AIDS, and I want to scream.  There is no comparison. Just stop.

No one cared about people dying of AIDS in the early years of the pandemic. The stock market didn’t budge. The president didn’t hold news conferences. Billions of dollars were not spent.

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In the early 1980s, AIDS was killing all the right people. Homosexuals and drug addicts and Black men and women. There is no comparison to a new viral outbreak that might kill people society actually values, like your grandmother and her friends in the nursing home.

To have any conversation during the early HIV pandemic meant talking about anal sex and sharing needles and condoms and religion and who God was punishing. We had to climb over mountains of social bias in order to educate people on the basic facts of risk and transmission.

Social distancing was easier then because the bodies of your friends were so consumed by dark purple skin lesions they were barely recognizable as human. There were no Congressional bills promising them paid sick leave or help with their medical bills. They were kicked out of their apartments and then died in the guest room of whoever had the space and the guts to care for them.

Tens of thousands of people died of AIDS-related complications before our government began to address it.  Many, many, many of those people spent their last breaths in the center of protests in the streets, begging for justice and relief. Their ashes were dumped on the White House lawn.

That activism has reverberations today, in the work between public health and community health advocates. That’s a difference, not a similarity.

To attempt to draw blithe comparisons – Oh! This feels so scary and there are lines at the grocery store and people have to stay away from each other. Hey, does this feel like when HIV happened…? – is an insult to the bravery and sacrifice of the living and the dead.

There is no comparison. Fuck that. Just stop.

Mark S. King is the award-winning writer of My Fabulous Disease. He has been nominated for multiple awards for his coverage of HIV/AIDS issues. This piece originally appeared on My Fabulous Disease and is reposted with permission.

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