AIDS and Covid-19

As we begin to take a historical perspective on the Covid-19 pandemic, including its yearlong siege, the change of political regime and the possibility of better government choices in the near future, we begin to look for precedents in the past. AIDS may be to Covid-19 like the Korean War was to Vietnam -- sometimes history at least rhymes -- and  some of the leaders are the same and the pathos and fear in the gay community in the 1980s certainly mirrors that of the elderly and vulnerable in the 2020s pandemic. -- blj


Socialist Action News

Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Gay Community: Then and Now


Today Dr. Fauci is well known as a trusted scientist who is trying to guide the country through a pandemic. All the polls say over 80% of the people in this country see him as the most reliable spokesperson on the COVID 19 Task Force. Gay men and lesbians who were involved in fighting a past epidemic (later a pandemic) knew Dr. Fauci as a more complex figure in their struggle with the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). It is clear that his years of working on HIV/AIDS, and his experience with activists is reflected in how he talks to the nation today. Fauci often refers to the fact that for seven long years there was no virus management for HIV – no drugs, no vaccine, no cure.

Dr Fauci was 34 years old when he started working for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and ten years later, in 1984 he became their Director of NIAID. He led the national response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

June 5, 1981 he received a Centers For Disease Control (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that listed five gay men in Los Angeles who were generally healthy, but died of a strange pneumonia only previously seen in some cancer patients. One month later he saw an additional 26 cases from San Francisco and New York City. Dr Fauci led the response to this new epidemic. He would later say that previously all his patients had cancer and got better and left the hospital. But then with his HIV patients, they generally all died in just 23 weeks.

In 1987 a meeting of 300 met to form ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). By this time it had been six years since the first cases of HIV/AIDS appeared with continuous death and suffering. They made activism a vital part of the gay movement turning anger and fear into action. Their focus was on the health insurance industry, Wall Street and the NIH where Dr Fauci was their target. Their major demand of him was access to experimental AIDS drugs with the demands, “Fight Back, Fight Aids”, “Silence=Death!” and “Drugs Into Bodies”. In 1988 they organized a major action which shut down the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). They blocked the doors and hallways chanting, “Hey, Hey, FDA, How Many People Have You Killed Today” and “Fauci, You Are Killing Us”. After their action they launched a media tour demanding a shortened drug approval process and illustrating that they all knew every detail of the complex FDA process. 

Tensions came to a head in 1990 when activists were not given a seat at the table where the discussions were taking place regarding the AIDS clinical trials. There was a massive demonstration outside Fauci’s office with activists wearing Grim Reaper masks and carrying large coffins. There were sixty arrests. Recently, in an interview Dr Fauci recalled being smoke bombed.

Eventually Dr. Fauci ended up loosening HIV drug clinical trial requirements so that more patients could try new compounds. This is now common and called “parallel tracking” which is the use of drugs that have been proven to be non-toxic and then are placed both in clinical trials and released simultaneously to patients who do not qualify for the trials but may have no other treatment options. Act Up members were included in writing procedural standards, and they were added to expanded seats on the planning committee of the AIDS Clinical Trial Group. This was a significant win, as federal bureaucrats had finally acceded to activist demands.

Ann Northrop, a lesbian AIDS activist at this time commented on Fauci’s evolution, “I would say at the beginning of his encounter with us, he was a pretty typical bureaucrat, making excuses for the slow pace of drug investigation and approval. I will give him credit for turning into someone who listened more to the activist point of view and eventually became more of an ally.”

There also is agreement that he was never homophobic like the majority of the medical establishment at this time.

Presidents were always a problem in dealing with the AIDS epidemic. Ronald Reagan never mentioned AIDS until 1987, six long years into the epidemic. Bill Clinton promised federal funding for a massive needle exchange program and then dropped it. George W Bush did approve funds to fight global AIDS. However, the money went to Christian groups that silenced LGBT voices in both the U.S. and abroad.

Recently, one of Dr Fauci’s most compelling statements about this period was made during a televised briefing of the COVID-19 Task Force. The Surgeon General spoke briefly about the disparity of virus cases being experienced in communities of color. Immediately Dr Fauci went to the podium and speaking slowly in his instructive manner addressed the issue of disparity of suffering. “This has happened before when there was incredible stigma against the Gay Community. And the Gay Community responded with the most incredible courage, strength, and activism.”

Fauci’s statement came when there had already been a controversy brewing in New York City. Rev. Franklin Graham’s “Samaritan’s Purse” had just set up a 68-bed field hospital in Central Park that was intended to take the overflow from Mt Sinai Hospital. The non-profit put out a plea for medical professionals to volunteer. There was a lot of public concern due to Franklin Graham’s frequent attacks on the LGBT community. He has compared same sex marriage to polygamy and incest and opposed a bill banning anti-gay conversion therapy.

Samaritan’s Purse requires volunteers to sign a statement of “faith” that specifically excludes gay volunteers. Two gay men have been rejected. The statement they refused to sign stated, “God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of traditional marriage. Men and women are made to complete each other.” When Graham responded to criticism he told the Charlotte Observer, “This is who we are. He added that they also reject people who drink on the job, do drugs or swear.” None of those issues, however are in the “Statement of Faith.” This violates New York State Civil Rights Code, New York City Human Rights Law and Mt Sinai Hospital Non-discrimination Policy.

Reclaim Pride, NYC initially issued a statement, “We were promised there would be no discrimination by Samaritan’s Purse in its services to New Yorkers. But they discriminate in who is allowed to help.”

On May 5th the New York Reclaim Pride Coalition held a news conference and protest near Mt Sinai Beth Israel Hospital. It lasted 15 minutes and everyone was wearing masks and social distancing. They criticized the mayor, governor and Mount Sinai Health Systems for welcoming Samaritan’s Purse into New York. They were ordered to disperse and received a summons for “violating an emergency measure by the mayor”. Bill Dobbs, an attorney and member of Reclaim Pride, said the order was unconstitutional because people were allowed to be in the street as long as they remained six feet apart. “If people can move around on the sidewalk, the first amendment is still intact.”