Now and Then: The Response to Zika Vs. AIDS

Now and Then: The Response to Zika Vs. AIDS

The Zika virus, which causes draconian birth defects in pregnant women and can be transmitted not just by mosquitoes but even sex (sound familiar?), hits the shores of the U.S from Latin America and health officials are all over it. Travel restrictions, health warnings, the works, in a campaign just weeks old. It has affected us down here in Broward County where Fort Lauderdale is located, and Miami, and my prediction is it may negatively impact on this year’s tourist season.

Okay you say, that’s what our health guardians are supposed to be doing, right? Absolutely, but contrast this to how the prevalence of HIV was treated over thirty years ago. If you know your gay history, and I didn’t have to bone up on it, I lived it, the response was, to be polite, underwhelming. The first cases in urban centers like San Francisco and New York of almost exclusively gay men coming down with rare infectious diseases like Kaposi’s sarcoma, which up to then had only been seen in Africa, were viewed as medical curiosities. The problem was quickly labeled the “gay plague,” as if to imply that it only happened to “those people,” so who gave a shit.

Ronald Reagan has been all but defied by the GOP as the Great White Father of the modern Republican Party but as President, following those first cases in 1981, he did virtually nothing. His response according to his biographer Lou Cannon was “halting and ineffective.” Gay men were treated like pariah and even funeral directors refused to accept their bodies. One of Reagan’s best buds was Reverend Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority (again, folks, listening to the rhetoric of today’s GOP contenders, have things really changed?) that viewed HIV as “the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Those in health care pleaded for money to be immediately thrown at the problem, but Reagan’s response was indifference, even after his friend from his Hollywood days, Rock Hudson, whose career as a matinee idol in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s would have been ruined had he come out of the closet, was diagnosed and eventually died of AIDS. It was not until 1987, close to the end of his second term, that Reagan even mentioned the word AIDS publicly. Eventually, massive funding became a reality but it was too late for the thousands of gay men whose time had run out.

In a strange way, your predecessors and my contemporaries who suffered through this terrible period made it easy on American society because they represented a somewhat isolated sub-culture, not mainstream America. Had AIDS hit like Zika has, I’m sure the response would have been 365 degrees different.

So is what is happening now a reflection of the hard lessons learned when another epidemic hit our shores a generation ago? Or is it because it affects heterosexuals, in fact, young mothers-to-be, heterosexuals carrying our next generation, and not “those people?”

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