HIV/AIDS activist discusses similarities between reaction to that pandemic and COVID-19

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed everyday life across the nation, and the confusion and anxiety many are feeling has drawn parallels to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Dr. Trish Siplon, a Saint Michael’s College professor and longtime AIDS scholar and activist, has viewed the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of that experience.

“I started working in HIV/AIDS back when I was a graduate student,” Dr. Siplon said. “I studied the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States and the development of an activist movement around it. After I got my PhD, I continued to look at the way activists have affected AIDS policy, but I also started working much more on the global AIDS pandemic and looking at the ways that the virus spread around the world and the ways that activism spread and connected around the world, and I think both of those perspectives are really relevant to this virus as well.”

Two weeks ago, national awareness of the coronavirus outbreak seemed to skyrocket when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson also announced positive tests.

“Everyone thinks ‘This is something that can’t happen to me and my group,’ and the breakthrough moment is usually when somebody that is more elite than average people is known to have this happen to them,” Dr. Siplon said. “In the United States with AIDS, it was Magic Johnson. Around this, it’s been sports teams and entertainers who have come out and said, ‘Okay, I’m infected.”

In the weeks since, the federal government and individual states have taken measures of varying degrees to slow the spread of the virus. Dr. Siplon compared these strategies to abstinence and harm reduction methods for HIV/AIDS.

“I think one of the ideas of harm reduction is that if you can’t get somebody to comply with something perfectly, it’s still better to get them to comply in a way that reduces risk as much as possible,” Dr. Siplon said. “Harm reduction is an approach that understands this denial factor. You set out a model that says ‘In an ideal world, this is what we’re going to do,’ and then you also have to look at the circumstances you’re in and ask what’s possible and what’s not.”

Reports that President Trump wants the country ‘opened up’ by Easter (April 12) have sparked concern from health officials, and Dr. Siplon is also worried.

“One thing about the natural world and about viruses is that you can be in denial, but they’re still going to do what they’re going to do,” Dr. Siplon said. “We already know this one moves exponentially, so you can say we’ll be in a position to do this by Easter, but we won’t be.”

Health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Brix, both of whom appear regularly beside the President at coronavirus briefings, give Dr. Siplon hope that previous experience from the HIV/AIDS epidemic is being considered in this pandemic.

“She stands next to President Trump at a lot of these press conferences and she’s our U.S. Ambassador who has for a long time ran the President’s emergency plan for AIDS relief. So, there are human beings who are carrying that knowledge around and I think they are just incredibly valuable.”

Dr. Siplon also expressed concern for incarcerated individuals in this pandemic and those in immigrant detention.

“Those are places that are creating incredibly vulnerable populations, and they’re also going to have impacts on outside populations.”

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