While doing research for an upcoming book, I read up on the early history of the AIDS epidemic. I came across And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts, a very in-depth documentary of events from July 1976 through January 1986. Far from being a dry treatise, it comes across as an engaging epic of this catastrophe. Overall, it’s a grim read, though this is certainly to be expected for a disease that was striking mainly young people and sucking the life out of them by inches.
Before I read it, I expected that the main part of the blame would be cast on the Presidency. Shilts does take shots at Reagan whenever he can, though it turns out this actually isn’t too often; if the President dropped the ball, so did almost everyone else in the beginning. The way I’m reading it, any inaction on Reagan’s part was small potatoes compared to all the other missteps. There was quite a bit more blame to go around at the federal level – the various health agencies (the people whose job it is to deal with these things) and Congress – as well as state and municipal authorities. Even then, governmental factors were only the tip of the iceberg.
There were some early observers who had a good idea of the magnitude of the problem and what it would turn into. Like the myth of Cassandra, they were prophets that nobody believed until it was too late. The government health agencies didn’t want to hear it, the media didn’t want to hear it, the scientific community didn’t want to hear it, and the gay community didn’t want to hear it.
When the inevitable happened and things were starting to get seriously out of control, the paralysis went on. Immediately there were ego-fueled scientific turf wars. Worse, researchers were starving for funds, their hands tied while the bureaucratic bungling went on. Congress was playing numbers games to put on the appearance that they were taking decisive action, but that wasn’t really happening. Mayors and city officials kept dragging their feet. Blood banks didn’t want to implement the elementary testing procedures available then because that would cost money, or ask questions about sexual history because that would offend gays. As for the reaction of the gay community – the hardest hit, especially in the beginning – this is where it gets surreal. The few sensible voices who dared to speak up were shouted down. Factionalism was a contributing factor to the big mess. The mere suggestion of closing down the bathhouses – where gay guys were getting infected on a daily basis – got the same reaction as taking a lollipop away from a toddler. Really, what the hell were they thinking? An even worse lapse of responsibility was that there were plenty of guys – including Gaetan Dugas, “Patient Zero” – who knew they were infected but kept on having unsafe sex. As for the media, eventually they did take notice, but it wasn’t until the death of Rock Hudson toward the end of the book that the crisis really reached public consciousness.
That’s how the book tells it, though as for the last conclusion, I’ll have to disagree. I was around then, and by the time Rock Hudson died, there certainly was much public discussion about it already. We certainly did know about AIDS, how it was spread, and what you had to do to avoid getting it. As I recall, Rock Hudson’s death was more like a ping on the radar than a watershed moment.
So now here we are, thirty years later. The reactions back then by those at the forefront – in science, politics, the media, the blood banks, and the gay community itself – certainly was as much of a clusterfuck as anything that went on in those bathhouses. Suppose that in the beginning, everything had gone right instead – the scientific community had acted with unity, the government had immediately released suitable research funding, the press took notice early on, the blood banks implemented whatever testing and precautions that were available, the mayors started AIDS education and services, the gay community saw what was happening and realized the danger, the bathhouse owners made “safe sex only” rules to keep their clientele alive, and overall everyone acted together to grease the wheels of bureaucracy – surely many lives could have been saved.
How much of it was inevitable? By the time word got out about the dangers of unsafe sex – and more importantly, most started believing it and protecting themselves – for many people it was already too late. This was true for Bill Kraus – one of those early voices, and one of the sensible characters. As for “Patient Zero”, it turns out that he wasn’t the first person in North America with the virus, though his willful irresponsibility after he was told he had a communicable disease caused him to infect likely hundreds of others in the early years. He certainly wasn’t the only one who didn’t realize the difference between liberty and license. The nature of the disease itself certainly made it difficult for the scientific community – it’s rare for new viruses to come along, they’re fairly hard to detect, and that’s only the beginning. Those who were on the right track had to fight tooth and nail to be heard. Hopefully some lessons were learned.
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a catastrophe before people start taking notice. Those who have their head buried in the sand don’t see the storm coming. This is definitely true for certain trends affecting Western civilization, though all that’s another subject for another day.
Want to help kill this damn bug? The good news is that parallel computing projects are under way, and you can participate. This works like the popular SETI@Home project, where spare CPU cycles are used to listen for ET to phone home. The World Community Grid has an AIDS project, as well as several projects to wipe out many other dreadful diseases. While you’re watching funny cat videos or conquering the World of Warcraft or even away from the keyboard, your computer will test molecules in the background. Get involved today!