When I first became a news reporter, in 1983, the AIDS virus had four different names, there were no good treatments, and there were widespread arguments and rumors about how it spread and how to stop it. President Ronald Reagan refused to take it seriously.
If that sounds a lot like now, welcome to the jungle! I think there are a lot of lessons from that pandemic that we can use to deal with this one. But it seems like our leaders have forgotten some basic things. I would like to remind them.
We must have good and useful information. Our state Department of Health failed us in the dengue epidemic because it refused to give us information by locality that would have helped us understand the patterns of transmission. I think it made two mistakes. First, it erred on the side of privacy concerns, and second, it did not respect the public’s intelligence, thinking that we might become complacent if we thought a particular area had no cases. While the DOH is doing much better this time, we still aren’t getting enough locality information about tests, infections and hospitalizations.
Right now we have a hodgepodge of badly defined terms — the worst being “COVID-19 cases.” COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus. If you are infected by the virus, you do not necessarily have COVID-19. You could be “asymptomatic coronavirus-positive,” the same way you can be HIV-positive and not have AIDS. A coronavirus-positive person can transmit the virus, but should not be categorized as having COVID-19 unless he or she develops serious symptoms.
This semantic confusion leads to a larger confusion having to do with where the COVID-19 problem is the most severe. If we define a COVID-19 case as anyone who tests positive (as officials do now), then the places where the most testing is done will have the highest number of cases. That might lead officials to allocate more resources to those areas, even if they have fewer sick people. What we really need to know is where the most hospitalizations and deaths are occurring. Those are the places where the resources are most needed.
We need to start gearing up for an epidemic of depression, unemployment, homelessness and abuse caused by this virus.
The safety net in our country already had big holes before the coming of this plague; now those holes are going to get much bigger. The $2 trillion stimulus will help some people in the short term, but if this pandemic continues into the fall (as the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention says), will the government under Donald Trump and the Republicans be willing to confront the reality that 30% of the population needs to continue on welfare? That was a major problem in the 1980s as health insurance, rent subsidies and other social services for people with AIDS were hard to come by.
Two things we did not have when the AIDS pandemic first struck are Fox News and the internet. Rumors and falsehoods did circulate about AIDS, but there was no concerted effort to spread lies like there is now.
Evidently, Fox News thinks it is its job to support Trump no matter what insane thing he says about the pandemic. And the Russian attempts to sow discord in our country are making many people (especially, it seems, evangelical pastors) ignore the quarantines.
Hopefully, one good thing that might come out of this horrible epidemic will be that people start demanding that their media not lie to them about things as important as life and death.
Matt Binder was a science/medicine reporter in the 1980s and ’90s and produced documentaries about the AIDS epidemic and social impacts of the genetic revolution. He was, until the coronavirus crisis, an afterschool science teacher at Waimea Middle School on Hawaii island.