The death toll climbed to unprecedented heights as a mystery illness wreaked havoc on the unsuspecting, all while officials in countries the world over scrambled to find an effective treatment and curb the sickness’s spread.
Though the sentence could describe the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s applicable to an entirely different crisis that occurred decades earlier: the spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s.
While COVID-19 has served as proof that much of society was not well-equipped to handle a pandemic, it wasn’t the first time an outbreak stunned the world.
And while COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS are vastly different in how they are transmitted and harm the human body, the social aspects surrounding the attitude toward the afflicted are strikingly similar.
From the origins of the illnesses to government response, the stigmatization of the affiliated to the heightened anxiety and paranoias felt by society, it’s hard to ignore the parallels.
“The similarities are you have the emergence of a brand new infection that spreads differently, but nonetheless widely, causing a disease that's very serious,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told InsideEdition.com.
Both diseases are known to have come from animals.
Dr. David Ho and colleagues from the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York said in 1998 that they believed a man living in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, was the first human to contract the illness in the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1950s. They said HIV "evolved from a single introduction into the African population in a time frame not long before 1959,” and believed it came after a monkey was eaten.
By the 1960s, the disease had spread to Haiti, after Haitian professionals returned home from working in the Belgian Congo.
Doctors across America were baffled by the then-rare disease. The first reported death affiliated with the new illness was in 1959 in New York City after a Haitian man died of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which was later determined to be associated with AIDS.
A decade later, a St. Louis teenager, Robert Rayford, died of an illness that also confused his doctors. After he passed, his cells were kept in cold storage. When the AIDS epidemic spread across the country, his cells were tested and were positive for the disease.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIDS had spread across New York City and San Francisco, and was creeping up across cities and communities around the country and the world.
“During the very early days of the HIV epidemic, it was really an invisible killer because people didn't know what was happening,” Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Disease Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told Inside Edition Digital. “So there were strange cancers and other opportunistic infections and diseases that were being identified. No one knew how they would link, except in epidemiologically they were happening in certain populations.”
“Since the beginning of the epidemic, 75 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 32 million people have died of HIV,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
There are currently 37.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, WHO says. “As an impactful outbreak, HIV/AIDS dwarfs anything else, including coronavirus,” Fauci said.
Like HIV/AIDS, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is believed to have originated in animals according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Early on, many of the patients at the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread,” the CDC has written out on the website. “Later, a growing number of patients reportedly did not have exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread. Person-to-person spread was subsequently reported outside Hubei and in countries outside China, including in the United States.”
To date, over 383,000 people have died from the coronavirus around the world and there have been more than 6.42 million cases reported since the outbreak began, according to WHO, and 110,000 people have died in America from the illness.
“We never even in our wildest dreams thought that the country or the world would be locked down with HIV, because we felt correctly that you could do something essentially to prevent getting infected,” Fauci said. “Whereas now [with coronavirus], the only thing you can do for sure is to avoid contact with other individuals.
“The emergence of HIV was insidious, it wasn't explosive, at least it didn't recognize to be explosive,” he continued. “Then it became clear globally that it was a disease that could essentially involve anyone, it was mostly heterosexually transmitted. But when it evolved, it evolved slowly and insidiously.”
The world wised up to safer sex practices by the end of the 1980s to help slow the spread of AIDS in the United States.
“That's really a very different scenario than saying, ‘if you are unaffected and you avoid sexual exposure to someone who you don't know what their HIV status is, if you avoid that, you won't get infected.’ Whereas now, the only thing we can say is the only way you know you're not going to get infected is to physically essentially separate yourself,” Fauci explained. “So those I believe are profound differences, even though they're both very important historic pandemics.”
The U.S. administrations in power during both crises have also come under fire for their response and handling of the illnesses.
“A strong federal lead is necessary to be able to optimize a response with also a lot of strong federal support in testing,” Daskalakas said. “I think that when you look back at the response here, one of the biggest chinks in our armor in the U.S. is that our testing platforms never came into focus early enough during the cases.”
Early cases saw AIDS ravage the gay community, communities of color, intravenous drug users and sex workers across the country.
“It was a certified death sentence. I mean, basically, if you got AIDS, you died a grizzly death. It wasn't as quick as some people die of corona, but it was pretty quick and it was pretty horrifying,” columnist Michael Musto of NewNowNext.com told Inside Edition Digital.
It took years for the Reagan administration to acknowledge the disease’s effect on the country had swelled to epidemic proportions.
“There are so many similarities, because AIDS had been ignored by President Ronald Reagan” Musto recalled. “The first time it was brought up in a briefing, the White House representative made a joke about it.”
Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, was first asked about AIDS in 1982. “AIDS? I haven't got anything on it,” he replied.
Political talk radio host Lester Kinsolving asked Speakes further to comment.
“Over a third of them have died. It's known as ‘gay plague.’ It's a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this?” Kinsolving asked as some in the room laughed.
Speakes said he didn’t have the illness and then asked Kinsolving if he had it. The infuriated radio host asked again. Speakes admitted he knew nothing about AIDS.
“There probably are people still with their head in the sand about corona, but it's so omnipresent and easy to catch that I see a much more instant world wide response from people, if not always from governments,” Musto says.
It took nearly four years into the epidemic for testing to come into the fold in America. Testing in 1984 helped identify the causes and determine the disease is transmitted by bodily fluid. Still, it took the 1985 death of a high profile actor to raise the alarm on what had by then spread to more than 20,000 people across the world.
“It wasn't until Rock Hudson, a major movie star, announced that he had AIDS because he was about to be outed as such by a tabloid that people started waking up in the government a little bit and dealing with it,” Musto said.
In 1987, the first FDA-approved treatment, azidothymidine, known as AZT, became available. Its arrival did little to assuage the anger and disappointment so many had in the way Washington handled the epidemic.
Like AIDS, the seriousness of COVID-19 was at first underestimated. President Trump in January told CNBC the United States had “it totally under control.” “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” he said.
On January 31, Trump blocked travelers coming from China and declared a public health emergency. “I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse, a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable,” he said in February.
By mid-March, states like New York and California began implementing social distancing practices and urged non-essential people to stay home. Other states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts soon followed.
Much like Rock Hudson became the face of AIDS, it took beloved actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson contracting coronavirus to make many in the U.S. pay attention. The couple, who contracted COVID-19 in Australia, have since recovered. In the months that followed, Americans watched anxiously as tests to detect the virus were developed, all while holding out a hope a vaccine would quickly follow.
Given the technological and scientific advances of 2020, Daskalakis said, “what took years” with AIDS, “now took days or weeks” with coronavirus. “Pretty amazing,” he said.
Fauci also remains hopeful.
“We're going to try to get [a vaccine] as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said. “We all have cautious optimism that sooner or later we'll be successful in getting one.”
Fauci’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has made him a popular man in some circles, but the infectious disease specialist has been around for quite some time.
“[He] is one of the folks who really ended up being one of the strongest allies for people who were advocating for HIV in the '80s and '90s,” Daskalakas said. “So it's really interesting that the same guy who we were cheering for then is the same guy that we're cheering for now.”
Fauci has been the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984. He was there as the Reagan administration largely let the AIDS crisis go unchecked, but he was sounding the alarm on the illness early on. By the time George H.W. Bush was elected president, Fauci was bringing activists into the mix to help further explain the severity of the crisis.
“What I learned from HIV is that in the beginning, you're dealing with an unknown phenomenon and you have to scramble as quickly as you can to find out what it is, what you can do about it, how to prevent it, how do you treat it.” Fauci recalled.
Fauci would go on to advise many presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He’s also one of Trump’s top health advisors. As such, he’s largely become the face of leadership in navigating the current crisis.
“I never compromise telling the truth on things that I know based on science,” Fauci declared. “I was that way back in the very early years of HIV, back in 1981, 39 years ago. Nothing has changed.
“This is the life I have chosen, this is what my training has been,” Fauci continued. "It has its upsides and its downsides. You have the opportunity to make an impact, but you also are in the eye of the hurricane all the time.”
The stigma those diagnosed with AIDS faced was unlike any other.
“I think ignorance comes from fear, and I feel like if you have fear that you can't pin on something, this is like an invisible terrorist,” Daskalakas said. “It's like you have this invisible monster that no one can see.”
AIDS was known as a “gay cancer” and “gay plague” in the 1980s. Lack of knowledge and an already entrenched stigma surrounding the illness even after more was learned led many to make assumptions. Many believed only gay people could contract the disease.
“In the nightlife scene, if somebody was known to be promiscuous, you kind of didn't want to be that intimate with them. That was only natural. Not to demonize them, but everyone knew that the AIDS virus was transmittable through sex,” Musto recalled.
The Asian community has borne the brunt of the blame for the coronavirus pandemic. Many, including President Trump and comedian Bill Maher, called the illness “the Chinese virus.”
“With blame comes stigmatization. But a different kind of stigma, in blaming the Chinese or blaming Asians, is when you are particularly prejudiced against someone who has the disease and there was more stigma, for example, associated with HIV,” Fauci said. “Individuals who are people with HIV were not only suffering from their own disease, but they were stigmatized because of the perception that they were in a risk group that got them infected. Like it was their fault that they got infected, which is completely ridiculous.”
It was later determined that the first cases of coronavirus to enter New York City, America’s epicenter for the crisis, did not originate in Asia, but in Europe.
“Frankly, I think that by creating stigma in some communities, we probably didn't test the right people,” Daskalakas added. “So I think that the reality is that policies have to blend with public health, rather than oppose public health.”
Both diseases have ravaged communities of color across the world, leading to further stigma. There are nearly 24 million people in Africa currently living with HIV and AIDS, according to the United Nations.
And the othering of Africans continues to this day, as a doctor suggested testing novel coronavirus tests on people in Africa.
"I was so appalled. And it was a time when I said when we needed solidarity— this kind of racist remark actually would not help, it goes against the solidarity," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a WHO media briefing on April 7, calling the remarks “a hangover from a colonial mentality.”
Still, for those who lived through the AIDS epidemic, hope for seeing the other side of the coronavirus crisis is not lost.
“It's been almost four decades in America with AIDS,” Musto said. “There have been huge advances from the early days when it was just: boom, you came down with symptoms, you're guaranteed to die a horrible death.”
Medications such as preexposure prophylaxis or PrEP, practices like syringe exchanges and the adoption practicing safer sex have helped curb the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“In the beginning with HIV, we didn't have any tools. Now we have spectacularly effective treatments, but back in the early years, we didn't have any,” he said.
Daskalakas believes it may not be long until progress is made in both crises, new and old.
“I feel like we have a good chance of getting a vaccine for both HIV and for coronavirus,” he said. “The coronavirus vaccine will come first, because I think that I have more faith that it's biologically feasible than the HIV vaccine, which is way more complex,”
And like people altered their behavior in an effort to avoid contracting HIV, Fauci says a balance between our old lives and the new way we move forward must be struck.
“I appreciate the need to try and get back where you have a society that's functioning at least close to normal for a number of reasons … I'm talking about getting people back to work so they can support their family, and getting things and society up and running for the health and safety of society,” he said. That's what bothers me, because you have to be attentive to both challenges, and they both are challenges.”
For Musto, who has lived through both epidemics, his focus is more on the core of what it means to be human and a part of a community.
“That was part of the damage of AIDS is that we feared everyone,” Musto said. “I just hope when this is over, we [remember] that people are not the enemy.”