Important similarities between the AIDS epidemic and COVID-19

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COVID-19 has completely altered many aspects of “normal” life. People have been expected to make drastic changes in order to maintain their safety and the health and wellbeing of their family and friends.  

With over 112 million cases worldwide and nearly 2.5 million deaths, COVID-19 has left government officials and health experts overwhelmed by many unknowns associated with the disease. To understand the scale and intensity of the coronavirus pandemic, health experts have begun to draw on similarities from the AIDS epidemic, which also had many unanswered questions when it first entered the scene during the 1980s. 

“One of the most important pieces to appreciate is just how much you can learn from what we experienced throughout the HIV epidemic and what we are experiencing now with COVID,” Dr. Lisa Eaton, a human development and family sciences professor, said. “There’s just so many lessons to be learned.” 

Eaton was one of four panelists who were invited to talk during the Community Outreach Dialogue event titled “Living in Fear: The Juxtaposition of the AIDS Epidemic and COVID Pandemic.” Each panelist had a unique background within academia and the medical field that provided a wide lens into the complexities of both diseases and offered their opinions on how the AIDS epidemic and COVID-19 share certain similarities. 

According to the panelists, one striking similarity between the two was the policy neglect and denial by the government.  

“We also observed this really strong lack of political guidance as well.”

“We also observed this really strong lack of political guidance as well,” Eaton said. “What we have seen in terms of our political motivations going forward are also what we observed in some of the earliest days of the HIV epidemic.” 

President Reagan, who was in office when the first case of AIDS was confirmed, stayed silent and unresponsive on the matter until years later. It wasn’t until Rock Hudson, an American actor and the first major celebrity to die of complications from AIDS, that public awareness heightened about the epidemic and the Reagan administration began to enter it into the national conversation, but by then it was too late. There were already many negative stereotypes associated with AIDS that led to a lack of national discussion and inadequate research funding.  

Although the federal government eventually began taking steps to raise awareness, such as creating World AIDS Day, AIDS remains a public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States alone, 15,820 adults and adolescents died of HIV/AIDS in 2018, showing how this epidemic continues to claim the lives of many Americans.  

As for COVID-19, President Trump was criticized during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic due to his lack of response and the spread of misinformation throughout his last year in the White House. Trump was first briefed about COVID-19 in late January 2020, yet he continued to downplay the severity of the illness and was resistant to going into lockdown.  

According to the Community Outreach Dialogue panelists, there was one striking similarity of neglect and denial by the government between the COVID-19 and AIDs epidemic. Photo courtesy of author.

One distinct difference between COVID-19 and the AIDS epidemic is the timeline. AIDS has continued to have a relatively low ratio of deaths compared to COVID-19, whereas the United States has already surpassed 500,000 deaths in just over a year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.  

A major factor in both case studies is the reliance on social behaviors to slow the rate of transmission, which, Eaton said, is hard to maintain over a long period because humans are not good at maintaining sustained behavioral changes. This has been seen in what is now being referred to as “COVID-fatigue,” where individuals are becoming increasingly wary of taking important precautions like wearing masks, socially distancing and working remotely. 

As the death toll and rate of transmission of COVID-19 continues and the number of new AIDS cases remains relatively steady, panelists echoed the importance of breaking down stereotypes associated with the diseases to ensure that people feel comfortable seeking care.  

“I think it’s important that we normalize talking about these things,” Sten Vermund, a pediatrician, infectious disease epidemiologist and professor of public health at Yale University, said. “There shouldn’t be a shame with being HIV positive or getting a positive COVID-19 test either.” 

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