opinion | The moral danger of declaring the pandemic over too soon
The early 1990s were in many ways the most terrifying of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America. Research into the disease was in full swing, but drug after drug failed to stop HIV. Funerals for friends and family in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s continued unabated, and many of us at risk of getting sick have had the Hope for a normal life abandoned. My friends and I, most of us only a few years out of college, lived in the moment because we weren’t sure how much time we had left.
My cousin Carl died in July 1995 from AIDS-related lymphoma. That was also the year I found out that I too was HIV positive. I wondered if Carl’s destiny could soon be mine.
But then we got lucky. In 1996, a new generation of treatments called protease inhibitors emerged that were able to control HIV. Doctors spoke of the Lazarus Effect: they watched their patients go from near death to health. I enrolled in a clinical trial and started taking the medication this year. i live because of them
In 1996, writer Andrew Sullivan came to a meeting of an AIDS activist group I had co-founded a few years earlier to advance AIDS drug development and research. It was shortly after the data on these protease inhibitors were presented at a major scientific conference. We were known as a group of die-hard skeptics of claims made by drug companies and scientists, but the data clearly showed these drugs were revolutionary. They would change the course of the epidemic for many people, myself included. Mr. Sullivan went on to write an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “When Plagues End,” which was published in November of that year and rightly stated that AIDS was no longer a death sentence for anyone infected with the virus, but a chronic manageable disease.
Of course, as Mr. Sullivan recognized, the AIDS pandemic did not end completely. In a way, it ended for a lot of middle-class white gay men like us; We had access to these medicines and good overall medical care, and we were able to start thinking about going back to normal. But AIDS still lingered and thrived in America in places that were easy for people like us to ignore.
Questions about the Covid-19 vaccine and its introduction.
The virus has taken hold in African American and Latino communities, particularly among young gay men. It moved south and into rural areas from New York City and San Francisco, tracing the geography of health disparities in that country. HIV continued to ravage Africa and the pills I took were not widely available there for several years until activists shamed the world to take notice. Rather than acknowledging that high drug prices kept the pills away from others, a US official said Africans can’t tell time and so AIDS drugs are of no use there.
Almost three decades later, we find ourselves in the midst of another pandemic. And we were lucky again: we have vaccines against Covid-19, and they are also revolutionary. The pandemic has changed.
And once again, the desire to return to normal and declare the end of another pandemic is palpable, at least for some of us, after more than two years of death, suffering and hardship. The recent lifting of the mask requirement by governors reflects this. There is a demobilization that many suspect depends on what might happen to new variants, but could easily become permanent. Much, if not most, of the country has said goodbye to Covid-19, or intends to do so.
It is also clear that SARS-CoV-2 will be with us for the foreseeable future and that it too will follow fault lines of social and economic inequality in America. It will persist in countries – likely many in Africa – where people do not have adequate access to vaccines against Covid-19. Some will blame low vaccination rates the hesitation of the inhabitants of these nations rather than Pharmaceutical companies holding back their vaccine technology enable global scale-up.
There has to be a better way out of the rubble of the past two years. What would it mean to walk into a future where a common destiny is as important as our own? It would mean that nobody was disposable.
The lesson of the AIDS pandemic is that it is easy to leave people behind, even at the cost of our collective peril. Coronavirus variants can develop in people with weakened immune systems who have trouble clearing infections themselves, such as those with untreated HIV. Think of the home we made for viruses like SARS-CoV-2 back then, by making vaccines harder to access and allowing millions to go without AIDS treatment now. Variants can arise because we want to leave everything behind. Nobody is really safe until we are all. But could we act to save millions of people, not only in the interests of self-preservation, but simply because it is the right thing to do? That would be a signal that this pandemic has changed us. Forever.