Sunday, April 19, 2020 | 2 a.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first viral outbreak Brian Murphy has seen as a health care professional in Las Vegas. An HIV caregiver since the 1980s, he says there are lessons to be learned from past outbreaks, particularly the emergence of HIV/AIDS.
“Unfortunately (HIV/AIDS) didn’t get the attention from the medical community that it really needed,” said Murphy, a 52-year-old administrator at a Las Vegas long-term care and skilled nursing facility. “Because at the time in the early ’80s, people weren’t really sure what this was all about and how it was spread, and of course the mass hysteria of, ‘Oh my God, I just touched this person, what if they breathe on me?’”
As with COVID-19, the federal government was initially slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS outbreak. An infamous audio recording involving President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, and members of the media joke about the HIV/AIDS epidemic being “the gay plague.”
Reagan didn’t even utter the word “AIDS” publicly until 1985, when he defended his administration’s commitment to fighting the disease, four years after the initial outbreak in 1981. By then, 15,527 Americans had already been infected with HIV and 12,529 had died of AIDS.
Beyond the federal government’s responses, Murphy sees parallels between the two diseases in how they’ve affected their respective zeitgeist. As a health care worker, Murphy is also intimately familiar with the fear of the unknown.
“When COVID hit the world, we as Americans were watching from afar, and then as more countries started to see the diagnosis pop up and we actually had a few confirmed cases here in the United States, it started to hit home,” he said. “The concern for the health care worker over the unknown was very similar to the HIV epidemic back in the early ’80s.”
HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are vastly different illnesses. COVID-19 is easily transmissible through respiratory droplets while HIV is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. But they share a sinister similarity: both “stigmatize” groups that are already marginalized, said Dr. Francisco Sy of the UNLV School of Public Health. Sy was a senior program director and AIDS coordinator in the Division of Extramural Scientific Programs at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
When Tracy Skinner first found out he was HIV positive in 1990, he didn’t tell anyone outside of his partner and sister.
“There was a lot of shame and a lot of guilt,” he said. “People didn’t really know how to really react to it in the early days.”
Skinner, who is the founder of the The Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ outreach group, says as someone living with HIV, and in and out of the hospital for the better part of three decades, worries over COVID-19 sets off a lot of triggers for him. Already overcome with survivor’s guilt after watching his friends die decades earlier, this new virus in some ways brings him back to past traumas.
“Seeing something like this, it makes you think of everything that went through your head when you were first diagnosed (with HIV),” he said. “And when you see people not taking care of themselves and not wearing face masks or social distancing, it really freaks you out and hits you with a different state of mind.”
Andre Wade, director of Silver State Equality, a Nevada LGBT civil rights group, said that although COVID-19 is ravaging the world much differently than HIV did in the past, both viruses exposed inequalities in the system that have already existed for years.
“COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but our health care system does discriminate, and we have to continuously prevent that issue. We don’t need to have health care systems that are homophobic, racist or discriminatory.”
During a White House news conference earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci compared the impact HIV/AIDS had on LGBTQ people to how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting African Americans, and how public health crises shed light on these disparities.
“During that time, there was extraordinary stigma, particularly against the gay community,” Fauci said. “And it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to this outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism — I think that really changed some of the stigma against the gay community, very much so.”
Just as HIV/AIDS was characterized as the “gay plague” in the early 1980s, COVID-19 has been characterized as a “Chinese virus,” and not just in public discourse, but by President Donald Trump. Sy, who is Filipino-American, said there has been an increase in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment. He experienced the racialization of the coronavirus firsthand at the supermarket two weeks ago.
“I was standing at the cashier and there was a lady standing behind me who was not standing on a mark on the floor that was six feet away from the cashier,” he said. “The cashier told her, ‘Ma’am, please move to the marked area.’ And the lady, looking at me, told the cashier, ‘I’m not Chinese, I don’t have the virus.’”
Asian-American businesses in Las Vegas were among the first to feel the economic effects of the outbreak and have suffered the longest since the Trump administration imposed travel restrictions between the U.S. and China, said Sonny Vinuya, president of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Last month, the FBI reported a surge of hate crimes toward Asian-Americans since the virus emerged in the United States. The analysis detailed a series of incidents in Los Angeles, New York and Texas. In one incident “three Asian American family members, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed … The suspect indicated that he stabbed the family because he thought the family was Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.”
Reports about people of Asian descent being harassed or discriminated against over coronavirus fears worry Elenis Wong, a receptionist at the Law Offices of Eric K. Chen, which is in Las Vegas’ Chinatown.
“When any issue gets racialized, the needs of the people suffering from the disaster get lost,” Wong said. “That’s the most disappointing thing about it.”
In the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay men were frequently singled out for abuse, as they were seen as responsible for the illness. Homophobia still continues to be a barrier for diagnosis of the disease.
Wade, of Silver State Equality, said both COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS are perpetuating fears in stigma against marginalized groups. Further, Wade said, political leaders are assigning blame on these groups, while failing to prevent what’s happening.
“When we label these instances relating to people, it distracts from the real causes of the pandemic,” he said. “So instead of thinking of possible preventative measures, we’re focused on attacking people because of their race or sexual orientation.”
Skinner said having lived through an outbreak before, he was prepared to take on whatever comes next with COVID-19.
“We’re a marginalized community, a community that sticks together and helps one another,” he said. “That’s what we all need to do right now when this world is helping one another.”