We live in a Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic. But we would be very foolish not to forget that it is just over 40 years since the world confronted AIDS and HIV. And we have had to live with it ever since. Looking back, those who were there find it hard to believe now how we survived it, and the dark times we lived though in the 1980s. So many, many suffered and died. In the wake of Covid, this has largely been forgotten. HIV attacks the human immune system and is transmitted by body fluids; Covid attacks cells, and especially lungs – being transmitted by small air particles. The focus of HIV needed to be more specialist as it attacked vulnerable groups – groups that often also experienced social stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. There was an awful lot of horrendous blaming the victim, which made governments slow to respond positively as the world developed hysterically hateful hysteria. Even populations specially impacted (and stigmatized) by it – linked to gay men, sex work, drugs, haemophilia – have often forgotten these stark battles and the fighting back of those days. Few have troubled to draw out the large contrasts between the two pandemics- their different world populations, responses, sufferings and politics. The 1980s was a dark time when prejudices and hatreds of minorities were stronger than today: governments took years to properly respond. It was left largely to movements such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, Act Up and Gay Men’s Alliance to confront the issues and bring about change. There are now preventives but still no vaccine. And don’t think the disease has gone away: in 2022, around 34 million are living with AIDS – the majority now in sub- Saharan Africa; and around 680,000 people died. Overall, 36.3 million have died from the epidemic since its start. (For comparisons, COVID-19 has seen over 5 million deaths and 262 million cases in less than two years).
What is clear from both pandemics is that they are just what they say they are: they are world epidemics. They belong to the whole world and must be approached through the world. Walls, barriers, and nationalism become the enemies of disease reduction and problem solving. No one is safe till the world is safe. A high level of international trust, care and compassion is needed – and at present this means we desperately need well-functioning global governance, like the UN and the World Health Organization. Not just as talking shops but for action.
World AIDS day was initiated in 1988 and is run through the UN World Health Organization. It highlights education and prevention. Each year it has a theme. This year. In 2021 it is highlighting world inequality. Its four key aims are:
- Creating Equitable access to medicine, vaccines and testing
- Developing Human Rights to build world care and trust
- Valuing essential workers and giving them resources
- Building community led and people centered information
These all signal major social policies that are vital for world health management.
Something that COVID policies – with their vaccine inequalities and disproportionate suffering of the marginalised – also need to seriously consider too.