In the summer of 1981 many of us began to read about and hear of a troubling trend. Gay men in New York and San Francisco began to report cases of Karposi Sarcoma and Pneumoscystis Pneumonia. It was odd because the only people who suffered from these diseases were those with compromised immune system. At the time this population had no reason to believe they were immune compromised. Eventually we learned that a previously unknown virus called HIV or human immunodeficiency virus caused these diseases. Within a few years we all called it AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
In the next several years AIDS decimated not only the gay male population but also intravenous drug users. We found the presence of the virus in blood, seamen, and saliva. AIDS also devastated children with hemophilia, most famously Ryan White (1971-1990) and people who needed blood transfusions like Arthur Ashe (1943-1993).
Reactions varied. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) answered with silence and said nothing about AIDS until 1985. Others, like Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) saw AIDS as a self inflicted wound: God used AIDS to punish homosexual activity.
For years many people lived in fear of AIDS, particularly when we weren’t sure how it was spread, how to test for it, and how to treat it. Nearly everyone knew someone who contracted AIDS, including my godfather, Duane LaDeau (1935-1993). But there was also widespread fear among health care workers, EMT’s who were on the front lines of caring for very sick people.
But eventually we learned more about the virus. We learned how it was spread, how to protect ourselves, and how to best treat the virus. There’s still no cure but people with AIDS can live nearly normal lives and we who care for them know what to do to avoid infection.
As for COVID-19 we’re still in our earliest days. Every day we’re learning more about the virus, how to avoid infection, how to safely care for those infected, and how we can look to slowing and stopping the spread.
But here’s the problem: in the 1980s our President and a leading Christian found ways to avoid dealing with AIDS either by ignoring it or blaming the victim). We now have a President who encourages behavior that will increase both the infection rate and the death rate. Scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci caution us to avoid direct contact in the hopes that the virus won’t spread. He advocates that we stay at home unless in the last 2 months many have. It’s been hard on the economy as the current unemployment rate stands at 14.7% and may well be higher. Our only way past COVID-19 leads through a quarantine that lasts until it’s safe to return to normal even if it means many can’t return to work for months.
President Trump recognizes that a poor economy will likely ensure his defeat in November. And so he’s applying pressure to bring people back into dangerous contact. His calls to “Free Virgina” and other states show how far he is willing to go.
He’s gambling that people will go back to work, unemployment rates will go down, the economy will bounce back, and the virus will magically disappear. As I tell my hospice patients, you can hope for and pray for a miracle but you can’t plan for a miracle.
But that’s what he’s doing. I’m not sure he’s even aware of this, but if everyone goes back to work and the infection/death rate explodes he won’t win. And thousands of us will die. Of course he won’t as all those around him are masked and tested.