HIV, COVID-19 and the Blameless Pandemics

A couple of days ago Martin Kulldorf MD, PhD – Professor of Medicine at Harvard University – Tweeted the following: For thousands of years, disease pathogens have spread from person to person. Never before have carriers been blamed for infecting the next sick person. That is a very dangerous ideology.

Now, it appears that Dr. Kulldorf has since backtracked and claimed he was just trying to provoke a reaction, as he doesn’t actually believe this. However given that Kulldorf himself is an anti-lockdown skeptic and has appeared on conspiracy theorist web-shows I have doubts as to the validity of his claims in general. Dr. Kulldorf’s Tweet prompted a severe backlash from angry users, myself included, that pointed to multiple examples of pandemics and outbreaks for which marginalised groups have bore the brunt of societal ire for their spread, and lethality, from smallpox to leprosy to HIV & AIDS. In fact, Martin’s claims about COVID-19 being the only pandemic for which people have been ostracised for its spread touched a nerve for many of us within the LGBTQ+ community. 

Much of the societal and institutionalised homophobia that still informs the prejudices and machinations of anti-gay legislators and public figures to this day was justified, and reinforced by the rapid and deadly spread of AIDS in the early 1980s in the Western world. The fact that only within the last six weeks has the law been changed in Northern Ireland to allow men who have sex with men (hereafter referred to as MSM) to donate blood without having to abstain from sexual intercouse is a testament to the blame and the horrors that were meted out against gay and bisexual men, sex workers, and trans women during the height of the AIDS moral panic.

And The Band Played On – One of the most impactful, and important pieces of literature ever written about the AIDS pandemic – was written in 1987 by Randy Shilts, himself dying soon after publication from HIV related complications. In the book Shitls levels accusations against the then US Presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, arguing that the intransigence and uncaring attitude of Government officials, and that of other Conservative western governments, not only allowed the virus to spread unchecked and without proper funding to fight it, but also condemned thousands of gay and bisexual men to a lonely, isolated and undignified death. 

Clippings from newspapers in the UK are staggering when looked at within the context of what was happening – Gay Related Immune Disease, the scourge of AIDS broadcast on prime time British television, striking fear and stigma into the hearts and minds of an unwitting, heterosexual public. 

An entire generation of sons, brothers, fathers, lovers, artists, dancers, doctors, teachers, playwrights, authors, painters, singers, activists, leaders was left to die, alone and afraid and young – looking like famine victims on wards that orderlys and cleaners refused to enter – because of the intolerance and viscousness of a society that just didn’t care. It took community activists and those who had been diagnosed with AIDS to advocate for themselves and challenge the status quo for access to medical treatment, enrollment in experimental drug trials, a platform in the media, and the ears of decision makers. As of 2018, 700,000 people in the US alone have died from HIV/AIDS, and that number would have been a Hell of a lot higher if it wasn’t for the sacrifices made by the hundreds and thousands of queer activists and our allies who acted up, fought back and demanded that something be done. 

So when Doctor Kulldorf talks about blameless pandemics, we don’t know what he’s talking about. 

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