'They Know What A Pandemic Is': HIV Survivors See Similarities To AIDS Epidemic The coronavirus pandemic feels eerily familiar to people who faced the AIDS crisis. It triggers memories of confusion over how the disease is transmitted and huge numbers of people dying quickly.

'They Know What A Pandemic Is': HIV Survivors See Similarities To AIDS Epidemic

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The coronavirus pandemic feels eerily familiar to people who lived through the AIDS crisis. They recall confusion over how the disease spreads and huge numbers of people dying quickly. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED in San Francisco spoke with two men about living through these two deadly outbreaks

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Forty years ago, Rick Solomon moved to San Francisco from Texas.

RICK SOLOMON: Great timing - I moved out here December of '80 just in time.

MCCLURG: Six months later, researchers published the first accounts of what they called gay men's pneumonia. The news hit during a wild era.

SOLOMON: Lot of sex, lot of drugs - I mean, you could have sex full-time.


MCCLURG: Sullivan, a charismatic 65-year-old, frequented the bathhouses. He danced at clubs in the Castro until sunrise, dressed in flannel shirts and Converse high tops.

SOLOMON: Particular songs - let's see. ABBA - "Dancing Queen" was a good one.


ABBA: (Singing) Digging the dancing queen.

MCCLURG: But the party stopped as people all around Solomon started getting sick.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer.

SOLOMON: Nobody knew anything. And it just - it was really scary.

MCCLURG: For a couple of years, researchers didn't know if it was spread by coughing, holding hands, a toilet seat. Gay neighborhoods in San Francisco felt a little like they do today.

SOLOMON: You know, you'd go out in the street at night, and no one would be there, and the bars were almost empty. And no, people didn't go out.

MCCLURG: There are other similarities between the two outbreaks. Small studies are overblown. Officials change course abruptly. Lives become stats. Though unlike today, scientists struggled to get funding to study the disease. It wasn't until 1987, six years into the epidemic, that President Ronald Reagan gave his first major speech on AIDS.


RONALD REAGAN: I've asked the Department of Health and Human Services to determine as soon as possible the extent to which the AIDS virus has penetrated our society and to predict its future dimensions.

MCCLURG: At the time, AIDS had killed tens of thousands of Americans. Patients and advocates appalled by the lack of government attention hit the streets.

SOLOMON: We had battles to fight.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Scorn the NIH. This is war for the sick.

MCCLURG: Solomon lost hundreds of friends. In 1990, he tested positive.

SOLOMON: We lived through all that, and everybody else was totally oblivious to what was going on.

JESUS GUILLEN: I'm a romantic Latino gay who happened to be also a 36-years HIV long-term survivor.

MCCLURG: Jesus Guillen tested positive for HIV in 1985, the year after he crossed the Mexican border into Los Angeles.

GUILLEN: I was just with one person. And sadly, he died one year later.

MCCLURG: Today the 65-year-old with spiky, bleached blond hair and a turquoise earring is a proud activist, Though when he found out he was positive, he didn't tell anyone.

GUILLEN: In those times, they were not allowing people who were HIV positive to stay in this country.

MCCLURG: It was more than just the fear of deportation that silenced Guillen. In 1985, a Los Angeles Times poll revealed a majority of Americans favored quarantining people with AIDS.

GUILLEN: We got the social distancing through discrimination, through a stigma to homophobia.

MCCLURG: At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, memories from this era flooded back. Guillen remembers one particular conversation. A cruise ship carrying passengers with COVID-19 was docking in the Bay Area. He overheard a woman on the street say...

GUILLEN: Why do they allow them to be right there in Oakland? They should be taking people to an island. And that took me back so much to the early '80s with HIV.

MCCLURG: For Guillen, the saddest memory...

GUILLEN: The reality is that society in general didn't care.

MCCLURG: Unlike the '80s when patients begged the government to do more, today some people protest because they want officials to do less.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Open California. Open California.

MCCLURG: As cases spike, Guillen worries he is at high-risk. But so far, COVID-19 is not devastating people with HIV. Doctors aren't sure why. One theory is HIV survivors could be applying lessons they learned during the AIDS crisis, like staying at home and wearing protection.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.


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