Fauci also guided the United States in the AIDS crisis. Survivors say it’s a road map for the coronavirus.


The little doctor in glasses who spoke at a television briefing in the White House has brought back dark memories of 30 years for Gary Cooper of Austin, Texas.

The reassuring voice of Anthony Fauci has guided Cooper and thousands of homosexuals around the world through the terrifying AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

As Cooper watches and listens to Fauci issue strict but calm warnings about the coronavirus threat, the 74-year-old man who has spent the past 35 years living with HIV has experienced a sort of familiar distress.

Anthony S. Fauci wearing a suit and tie: AP Photo / Alex Brandon

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AP Photo / Alex Brandon

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“The risk of infection is created by what we do, by our actions, not who we are, not our nationality,” said Cooper. “It spreads through our contact. “

As COVID-19 ravages the world, Cooper and homosexuals in Austin and around the world who survived the AIDS epidemic often found themselves reliving the dread and anxiety of a bygone era.

Does a friend or loved one – someone they’ve had close contact with – have the virus and don’t know? Will they get it themselves? Will it kill them?

“I think anyone who has gone through the AIDS crisis recognizes some parallels and of course some differences,” said Cooper.

As government officials, including President Donald Trump and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, discuss a gradual return to life before COVID-19, survivors of the AIDS epidemic are eager to share the stories. lessons they learned decades ago.

They said they have long-honed models for setting new cultural standards for protection from disease and advocating for communities that lack vital resources.

The AIDS crisis has helped usher in an era of awareness of the gay community and the unique health challenges it often faces due to inequitable treatment. In a recent White House briefing, Fauci said the disproportionate death toll among black Americans who contract COVID-19 reminded him of the oversized impact of HIV and AIDS on gay men, saying he “ends by shining a very bright light on some of the weaknesses and weaknesses of our society. “

He and other experts hope that the COVID-19 tragedies will bring similar attention to the health care inequalities faced by African Americans nationwide.

Gay rights activists have said that much of what they gleaned at the time can be useful today.

“We learned about health, spirituality and mutual care,” said Reverend Jim Mitulski, who has served churches with primarily LGBTQ congregations in California and Texas and is a pastor of the United Church in Christ outside Oakland, California. . “We survived it – not everyone, but collectively – and it is the gift we can bring to society that has never been more open to receiving it from us. “

Comparison of viruses

AIDS and COVID-19 broke into similar vortices of terror, but experts point out significant differences in the two diseases.

The two attacked the victims indiscriminately as scientists and doctors worked to trace the origins of the viruses and find effective treatments and vaccines.

The two diseases share a particularly diabolical characteristic: those who do not show symptoms can be carriers and unknowingly transmit the virus.

HIV and AIDS have killed 32 million people since the early 1980s and nearly 75 million have been infected, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, approximately 700,000 people have died from HIV and AIDS.

In the months following the appearance of COVID-19 in China, estimates indicate that more than 2 million people have been diagnosed with the virus worldwide and nearly 165,000 have died, including more than 40,000 Americans.

In both cases, scientists and doctors have studied why certain populations are more at risk. In the case of AIDS, doctors found that gay men were more likely both because of the way they had had sexual contact and because the stigma of their sexual identity made them less likely to see a doctor.

More: The LGBTQ community may be “particularly vulnerable” to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s why.

Doctors are still learning about COVID-19 but have established that those with underlying health conditions appear to be most at risk of dying. Those in the African American community who have less access to health care resources appear to be the most vulnerable. For example, 70% of deaths from COVID-19 in Louisiana were black patients, even though they represent only 30% of the state’s population.

Unlike AIDS, which is spread by sexual contact or by blood transfusion, COVID-19 can be contracted through much more casual contact, similar to the flu or a stomach virus.

Many people who contracted the virus from the very beginning of HIV did not survive.

“Literally at the time, when you started having symptoms, they were coming in, and we never knew if they were going to appear,” said Eugene Sepulveda, Austin philanthropist and former chair of the HIV Commission city ​​and county from 1994 to 1996. ”Many survived, and others did not. “

Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 have recovered and thousands of people have mild or no symptoms.

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Gay men who went through the early days of AIDS pointed out that COVID-19 is not ashamed of their suffering from the onset of HIV.

“There is no idea that people deserve to have it or that they have brought it in one way or another,” said Toby Johnson, owner of Liberty Books, an LGBT bookstore at Austin, with longtime partner Kip Dollar. “It made things much more difficult. You were afraid to tell anyone that you had it or had it. “

Perhaps the most cruel difference between the two illnesses comes from the victims’ last days.

David Wright, an Austin doctor who treated most of the city’s first AIDS patients, said that palliative care gained popularity during this time. Most patients died with their friends and family at their bedside.

“With (COVID-19) it eliminates all continuous contact with people who may be experiencing the last days or hours of their lives, and it is incredibly difficult, not only for patients and medical staff but also for families, to respect this concept. social distance for people who are dying, “said Wright.

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Lessons learned

Health experts worldwide say society will likely be forced to adapt to life with COVID-19, in the same way that people, especially gay men, have adapted to the AIDS epidemic .

Those who were sexually active had to establish new cultural norms for intimate interactions.

“Gay men have had to learn to understand each other with shields and barriers,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the school of public health at Rutgers University and an HIV / AIDS prevention specialist. “Here is exactly another new normal. “

Likewise, health officials expect that for a period of time, people will be forced to wear masks or masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. New York and Maryland have made face shields mandatory, as has Austin. It is also likely that people avoid traditional hugs or handshakes.

The AIDS epidemic has ushered in an era of progress in education and civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

Those who were deeply involved in the response said they had learned the importance of awareness raising, especially in minority and poor communities, where accurate information about the spread of the virus was lacking. They learned to tailor their message to specific audiences.

“Expecting people to do something because we told them, it didn’t cause any organic change,” said Mitulski. “It involves education and conversation. “

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on African Americans, lawmakers and others have called on the government to provide more tests to minority communities, noting that many have no access to health care, and have not the ability in many cases to work from home. They said leaders must address the systemic disparities between minorities and others that cause the spread of diseases, such as poor living conditions and lack of transportation.

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At the height of the AIDS epidemic, doctors and counselors advised gay men to treat anyone they had intimate contact with as if they were HIV-positive, a way of thinking that could guide social interactions at home. age of COVID-19.

“If you made that assumption, you protected yourself from others, and they protected you,” said Johnson.

After the AIDS epidemic, many gay men began to take their health in general more seriously, to seek medical attention for routine physical examinations, and to be vaccinated against diseases such as the flu.

“This is another of these crises that will force us to be better,” said Halkitis. “You have to take the wrong with what will ultimately be the good. “

A sense of responsibility for others and for stronger communities also emerged after the AIDS epidemic.

Many say they are seeing signs of hope that something similar will result from COVID-19, indicating the outpouring of philanthropy, the widespread making and sharing of face masks, and the celebration of health care workers.

“We can see this as an opportunity to be bigger than ourselves,” said Cooper, “and to help the needy and reach out to the lonely, by calling them on the phone and finding out by ourselves that in helping others, we feel better and find courage. “

This article was originally published on USA TODAY: Fauci also guided the United States through the AIDS crisis. Survivors say it’s a road map for the coronavirus.


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