Reprinted with permission from the May 2020 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
by Kim Painter
Our current pandemic situation is bad enough without the grim weight of a fractious political overlay. But we have one, and at times it’s discouraging to the point of flattening a person. Yet there may be cause for hope: In 1981, the nation faced a very different pandemic as AIDS emerged in urban communities. It gave rise to cultural and political responses as well.
“It serves them right,” was heard across the country, with the unspoken corollary being “…for what they do in the bedroom.” As debased as America’s level of awareness is now, it was then incapable of a humane response to a disease besetting the community of gay men. An influential sector of our body politic found expression in our president, Ronald Reagan.
His response to AIDS was…not to respond. For all the post-mortem hagiography, and despite any temptation to compare him even a bit favorably to our current disaster-in-chief, Reagan’s response to the pandemic of AIDS was monstrous. The words “malign neglect” are surely apt, but do not begin to evoke the murderous wall of silence that was his response to AIDS. Major US cities were being ravaged. Physicians were bewildered, some frightened and foolish. All manner of superstition and fear gripped people and stood with no rebuttal for years. Patients could be turned away, left literally to fend for themselves against a relentless viral foe.
With no guidance from American political leaders, it took years and a savage loss of life for the response to form. Meanwhile, LGBT America faced AIDS head-on themselves, in urban communities of love and untold effort. They did their own nursing, feeding, and literal heavy lifting. Then, they shouldered the burden of advocacy—navigating the mazes of health care, public assistance, legal battles, and any challenge you can imagine.
AIDS had been identified through clusters of illness in 1981. ACT UP formed in protest in 1987. Enraged by the horrors of a national silence that left corpses in its wake, gay men became the voice of a pandemic. Early on, they were joined by scientists, public health workers, and attorneys. Later, politicians and celebrities came on board. Realizing this pandemic was wiping out vast tracts of American culture itself, people rose in protest, led by the survivors and caregivers of the LGBT community.
COVID-19 is a different virus than the HIV that brought us AIDS. We were warned it was coming. Once again, a US president chose to ignore an impending pandemic, but only until it grew to threaten his political future. Then he quickly pivoted to politicize it in every aspect.
As I write, VP Mike Pence is in Iowa to nudge skittish churches into holding in-person services despite rising case numbers. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has opened malls, fitness centers, and tanning salons in spite of data, touting data-driven decisions. The only reason this makes even distorted, marginal sense is that testing is restricted here. The Gov. calls it ‘fishing where the fish are.’ Sufficient testing is happening only in counties home to stricken meat plants.
The fear inspired by COVID-19 is not the fear inspired by HIV/AIDS. In 1981, our fear was a superstitious plague-fear. Today, the politically powerful fear their inept handling of the pandemic will reveal an overall unfitness to govern. Today, those who desperately need jobs are forced to live jammed into the space between a paycheck and exposure to an illness they may not be able to survive or pay for if it hits. Today, we face fear of economic collapse and massive unemployment.
AIDS took much from us. But it also gave us something. Voices raised in purpose and well-focused anger changed history, overcoming a bigoted inertia. We may also create something better out of the ravages of the COVID era.
It is possible people will realize the cruelty with which they are being treated by those who swore they would never be forgotten again. The lie of the president stands revealed. It will be up to Americans on both sides of our political divide to decide what to do with the truth of our own time.
We are divided, and yet the horribly sharp, potentially destructive razor’s edge driven between us is thin. So thin. If we can wear it down, perhaps a fractured people will knit itself back together. If so, Carl Sandburg’s I am the People, the Mob will read as prophesy:
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision. The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
—Kim Painter is the Johnson County Recorder and served as board president of the Iowa Center for AIDS Research and Education (ICARE)