A lot of folks reading this blog are likely too young to remember the days before AIDS. Many of y’all, I’m sure, have only known of AIDS as a disease that requires some spendy drugs, but is not a fatal or even a necessarily terribly inconveniencing one. I assure you younguns that it wasn’t always like that. And it may not always *be* like that.
When the disease that would eventually become known as AIDS was first making its presence known in the 1970s, it seemed to be confined to gay guys and intravenous drug users. Consequently… society didn’t much care. Of course it didn’t help that nobody knew what caused it. But when it became clear that it was a viral infection transmitted through bodily fluids – especially when it was discovered that the blood supply was tainted and that people who were neither homosexual nor drug abusers, but were simply hemophiliacs and the like were coming down with a disease that was not only unstoppable but fatal – well, people freaked the fark out.
This was not an isolated incident. In recent years with the threat of various pandemics such as ebola and the various flus, people lost their minds. The same happened back in the early 80’s when people realized that for some years a virus had been floating around that could kill them. The fact that the disease had been spread by people that society didn’t think that much of… well, that didn’t make things any better.
The 1970’s had been a decade of unrivaled hedonism. The 1950’s had seen the widespread introduction of antibiotics which had seen the end of syphilis and gonorrhea as the historical threats that they had long been; the 1960’s saw the collapse of many of the cultural norms that had kept peoples behaviors at least somewhat in check. And so when the 70’s came along with it’s malaise and despair due to the economy and the collapse of American exceptionalism, people went just plain stupid. They thought that sexually transmitted diseases were just minor inconveniences, to be dealt with with a shot afterwards. They thought they were invincible.
So when the 80’s came along with the threat of AIDS, a sexually transmitted disease that would KILL YOU without remorse and without hope, society went goofy in another way. All of a sudden teenagers like myself were told that if you had sex, you’d die. And people began to wonder: would you die if you shook someones hand? If you kissed them? If you sat on a toilet seat? If you got bit by a mosquito that had just bit someone else? In a world where nobody was really all that sure about just what the AIDS virus was, how it spread and how it might mutate, these were common enough concerns, and they weren’t *stupid* concerns. The West Nile virus, for example, killed a popular and healthy PE teacher not far from me last year because he got bit by a skeeter.
In the years since the 80’s, it has become popular among many on the political left to actually blame Reagan for much of the trouble with AIDS. Their reasoning? He didn’t talk about it. Well, sure, fine, he didn’t talk about it. But curing a disease is hardly in your average Presidents skillset, not een if they are a really good orator. In the generations since Reagan, we’ve had the sainted Clinton and that god among men, Obama, each with eight years and neither of *them* have cured AIDS either. So just what Reagan was supposed to do to make these people happy is unclear.
Here’s the thing, though. If Reagan had exercised more power than a President might actually legally have, it’s just possible that he *could* have ended the AIDS threat in the US. Consider.
In the real world, AIDS ceased to be terrifying as drugs were developed that basically jumped up and down on AIDS, driving it into remission. They didn’t *cure* AIDS but they made it seem irrelevant. Now people with the Great Plague Of The Age could expect to live out a more or less full life span. But the virus is still there, lurking in infected cells, having wormed its way into the host cells DNA.
In the real world, AIDS became a political disease that somehow conveyed morality to its victims. If you have lung cancer or emphysema because you smoked all your life, if your liver is trashed from drinking, if your brain is mush from smoking dope, you’re seen as kind of a dumbass. But if you got AIDS because you did some clearly unwise things… why, you’re some kind of a *hero.*
So, imagine a slightly different turn of events. Perhaps the politics went a little different, or one sympathetic victim or another was less sympathetic, or less of a victim. And so AIDS was treated the way society would treat an outbreak of, say, ebola or smallpox. If you were found to have contracted the fatal, transmittable disease, you would be quarantined until you were safe or dead. Would this automatically end AIDS? Of course not. The disease is symptom free for *years* in some cases, so lots of people would have it and not know it. But if there was a firm policy on quarantining all who have it, and a widespread campaign for universal testing, the chances are really quite good that the AIDS epidemic in the US could have been stamped out by the early 90’s: there’d be people in the quarantine zones who have it, but more people aren’t getting it.
This sort of thing was predicted in any of a number of dystopian movies and books of variable quality, where either victims of AIDS or some future AIDS stand-in disease are rounded up and thrown into camps. By comparing any effort at quarantine with fascism, the idea of quarantine was essentially nixed. Keep in mind, kids, that when the role of “bath houses” in the spread of AIDS was first realized, many in the gay community fought tooth and nail to make sure that these sources of pestilence were allowed to remain open.
Would a “fascist” quarantine system have ended AIDS? Maybe. Cases can be made either way. But you know what *didn’t* end AIDS? The approach we took. We now have millions of people infected with a disease that is being held in check with drugs. And now, look, oh goodie:
“Subtype AE” is emerging in the Philippines, and it’s resistant to the antiviral drugs that have kept AIDS in check. More than 10% of new antiviral patients in many latin American, African and Asian countries have forms of AIDS that are resistant.
The process of perpetual treatment of AIDS has led to the perpetuation of AIDS. Future mutations *could,* maybe, just possibly, lead to a far more dangerous form of the disease. Airborne strains, strains actually transmittable by insect bites or sweaty handshakes or breathing.