AIDS and the 80s

By Kristen Johnson

We Were Here is a truly outstanding documentary about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. When HIV/AIDS cases first started appearing in the city, it was referred to as the “gay plague.” Accompanying the outbreak was a lot of fear, hatred, and stereotyping.

The history of HIV/AIDS and the local and nationwide response to it is historically interesting and worth discussing. But, the local response to the epidemic is truly worthy of praise.

Misinformation and fear was rampant of the disease was rampant in the early 1980s. People did not know how it was transmitted, how to treat it, or what to do with people who clearly had the disease. Instead of running away from the problem, the community embraced each other, cared for each other, and loved each other. The stories of “regular” people volunteering in hospitals, starting food banks for those diagnosed with the disease, starting awareness campaigns, and the love and healing provided to the sick and those who loved the sick should inspire us all to action. Of particular note was the response from the medical community. In the early days, all nurses and doctors in AIDS-wards were completely voluntary because they simply did not know how the disease was transmitted. Nurses and doctors stepped up to the plate and volunteered with love and compassion, in spite of whatever fears they may have had.

The community response in the early 80s and beyond should be an example for us all about how to take care of our neighbors. Unfortunately, the other notable thing about the film was a short discussion of the government’s response to the epidemic. The directors chose to only touch on the subject, but it’s worth discussing.

Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, was president for nearly five years before he said the word “Aids” in public, nearly seven years before he gave a speech on a health crisis that would go on to kill more than 650,000 Americans and stigmatize even more.

In recent months, published reports have revealed an administration that laughed at the scourge and its victims and a first lady who turned her back on Rock Hudson, a close friend, when he reached out to the White House for help as he was dying from an Aids-related illness. (The Guardian).

We might wonder how the outcome may have been different had the Reagan Administration chosen to do something much earlier in the epidemic. Perhaps it’s a lesson to be learned when thinking about the Zika outbreak, the rise in cancer cases, and an uptick in people with resistance to antibiotics.

Galatians 6:2 (NRSV): Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Shame on politicians for choosing politics over health. Shame on the community for the fear and stigma that still exists against people with HIV/AIDS. Props to the community who did and continue to volunteer their time and love to help.

Serve all with love.

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