There are so many reverberations of the AIDS epidemic during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Sure, the coronavirus is more easily contagious and spread through the air, unlike the sexually-transmitted HIV, but both empower opportunistic infections and other things ring so familiar between then and now…
Dark Days of Fear and Death
There was a time when getting infected with Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) was essentially a death sentence.
And not just death, but an unspeakably horrible demise, provoking intense fear and prejudice.
The AIDS epidemic emerged in the American landscape when I was a freshman off at college at Auburn University during a time when most young men revel in the pursuit of women.
What should have been a sexual heyday was instead an era of tremendous fear and social isolation for most Americans. My prospects for wild escapades went from few to none.
Much fear surrounded it because there was no cure and a limited amount of information to base prevention upon.
President Donald Trump has been criticized for equating the avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases to surviving his own personal Vietnam, but in the proper context stripped of politics, this crude analogy does evoke the risks of being a sexually active adult functioning within an increasingly permissive society.
Decades later, there still is no vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS, so at least we are way ahead on the coronavirus with a greater sense of urgency. Antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of AIDS and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy. Treatment is recommended as soon as the diagnosis is made. Without treatment, the average survival time after infection is 11 years.
COVID-19 is obviously having a greater, more urgent impact considering that survival time after infection can be 11 days.
Who Goes There?
Because AIDS was new and brought so many unknowns, a sense of panic gripped the public. Could you catch it from sitting on a shared toilet seat? Who could say for sure? Scientists? Yeah, right. How could THEY know for sure? They probably made it in a lab! In the early days of the outbreak, there was no way of knowing that you could not acquire HIV through exposure to feces, nasal secretions, saliva, sputum, sweat, tears, urine, or vomit unless these were contaminated with blood. It was a fear free-for-all.
Then, like now with COVID, you had to mentally assess the risks involved in associating too intimately with someone. It was impossible to know, absent a test result, whether someone had it and was spreading it around without possessing any awareness of their infection.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just the night of passion they’d spend with you – their ill-advised hookup 6 months earlier with someone promiscuous who misled them about the quantity and quality of their bedpost notches wasn’t all that different than the co-worker who spent last Saturday in 2020 partying with a bunch of careless friends who haven’t worn face coverings or bothered to social distance. Perhaps their group thoughtlessly passing around the same bongs or sharing bottles of liquor the way people in the 70s (and now) casually had sex.
Then and now, there can be deadly consequences to what you choose to wrap your lips around and swap bodily fluids.
What Science Tells Us about COVID-19
As we have learned this year, COVID-19 spreads from person to person mainly through the respiratory route after an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes. A new infection occurs when virus-containing particles exhaled by an infected person, either respiratory droplets or aerosols, get into the mouth, nose, or eyes of other people who are in close contact with the infected person.
The closer people interact, and the longer they interact, the more likely they are to transmit COVID-19. Closer distances can involve larger droplets (which fall to the ground) and aerosols, whereas longer distances only involve aerosols. The larger droplets may also evaporate into the aerosols.
It is estimated that one COVID-infected person will, on average, infect between two and three other people. It often spreads in clusters, where infections can be traced back to an index case or geographical location. There is a major role of “super-spreading events”, where many people are infected by one person.
Tracing Our Steps
Much like the contract tracing of today once a person learns they have the coronavirus, if someone contracts HIV, they are advised to make that difficult phone call and have a frightening conversation about the need to get tested to be sure they didn’t catch it so they wouldn’t be spreading it around to others. Also like today, there were surely people who instead kept quiet about it out of a sense of shame, figuring that they could be okay keeping it a secret.
Much like the coronavirus, early symptoms of HIV/AIDS were often not recognized as signs of infection. Even cases that got seen by a family doctor or a hospital were often misdiagnosed as many of the many common infection diseases with overlapping symptoms such as fever, sore throat, headache, or tiredness.
Symptoms of COVID-19 often include fever, cough, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and loss of smell and taste. Symptoms begin 1 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Around one in five infected individuals do not develop any symptoms.
In the same way that someone dying of COVID-19 can be said to have died of pneumonia, HIV patients progress to Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is the body made vulnerable to opportunistic infections affecting every organ system in the human body. The most common initial conditions that alert to the presence of AIDS are pneumocystis pneumonia (40%), cachexia in the form of HIV wasting syndrome (20%), and esophageal candidiasis. Other common signs include recurrent respiratory tract infections.
Opportunistic infections may be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that are normally controlled by the immune system. Which infections occur depends partly on what organisms are common in the person’s environment.
Today, HIV/AIDS has become a chronic rather than an acutely fatal disease in many areas of the world, yet those infected often experience long-term impacts even after anti-retroviral treatment in the form of conditions like neurocognitive disorders, osteoporosis, neuropathy, cancers, nephropathy, and cardiovascular disease. The coronavirus can also cause chronic damage to the cardiovascular system.
The Moral Implications
People whined about wearing condoms then the same way they scoff at wearing face coverings. And the only sure way to NOT catch this deadly disease was to limit social interactions because you can’t catch either sitting at home alone on a Friday night.
Then, as now, men eager to enjoy their sexuality could be overheard saying that “if they get it, they get it” but ain’t no virus gonna get in the way of their fun. We were lectured then about not “living in fear” then either. Then, as now, drinking alcohol put you at a higher risk because it lowered inhibitions that caused you to take precautions.
There was a lot of judgment and prejudice then as well. So many supposedly decent Americans were happy to let the epidemic “thin the herd”, believing that the disease was a creation of God to punish the wicked, i.e., people failing to respect the conventional nuclear family created only within wedlock, sometimes laying with the same sex and engaging in “unclean and unnatural” acts of perversion such as anal sex.
The source of these viruses provoked speculation, hatred and fear. COVID is believed to have emerged from a bat-borne virus, possibly from unsanitary wet markets in China where wild creatures are commercially slain in unnaturally close proximity to one another. HIV is believed to have originated in monkeys in West-central Africa, with the earliest, well-documented case of HIV in a human dating back to 1959 in the Belgian Congo.
During the 1980s, much of the general population dismissed AIDS like the rain that washes the pollen into the gutter and failed to react with empathy until realizing that so many had been infected through contaminated blood transfusions, shared hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding.
More than 770,000 Americans have died from HIV/AIDS, according to 2018 statistics, with 37.9 million living with it. COVID has been confirmed in at least 72 million cases and 1.6 million lives have been lost, including 300,000 Americans, as of this writing.
Consider the moral implications of COVID-19 as some devout churchgoers fail to grasp how ill-advised it is to attend Sunday services in person. Some of the deadliest COVID outbreaks have spread among congregations who felt confident that the Lord would protect them because they were somehow morally superior to the rest of the population. Turns out, a killer disease sailing through our veins doesn’t check membership cards before deciding who to take to the grave.
Similar but Different Plagues
Both AIDS and COVID are morally-infused plagues that unleashed premature, horrible death. Both diseases spread around the world despite widespread news coverage and public health information campaigns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has differed from HIV/AIDS in terms of its wider impact, causing global social and economic disruption, widespread supply shortages exacerbated by panic buying, etc. But both are submicroscopic infectious agents that replicate only inside the living cells of an organism — devastating invasions of the human body that can mostly be prevented by mitigating human behavior.
Be careful out there and “wrap it up” — condoms and face masks, my friends.