‘Déjà vu’: HIV-positive Pittsburghers say we have much to learn about COVID by comparing it to our other deadly epidemic

by Oliver Morrison

When stay-at-home orders for the coronavirus were announced in March, some Pittsburghers who have lived with HIV for decades felt what they described as post-traumatic stress from the first epidemic they lived through. 

“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” thought Mark Wagner, who was first diagnosed with HIV in 1985. “And this one could take you out much faster.”

Several Pittsburghers living with HIV told PublicSource the COVID pandemic echoed many of the scariest and most dangerous parts of living through the HIV and AIDS epidemic, including confusion about the science, social isolation, a reluctance to adopt public health measures and a lack of leadership from the president of the United States. They said the way many have dismissed deaths of the elderly from COVID-19 in order to open the economy reminded them of how gay men’s health was passed over during the AIDS crisis, a time of rampant homophobia.

“When Reagan was president he didn’t want to acknowledge HIV,” Wagner said in December. President Ronald Reagan didn’t mention the disease in public until 1985, several years after it had begun killing people. “Much like we see with Trump. He’s telling people don’t worry about it, don’t wear a mask.”

Even some of the same scientists at the forefront of the HIV crisis, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and former CDC Director Robert Redfield, returned to play central roles in the latest pandemic. Some healthcare experts who have worked during both the HIV and COVID epidemics said comparing both epidemics could provide insight as we continue to address COVID-19 and try to prevent future epidemics. 

The HIV and AIDS epidemic has been ongoing for more than 40 years and is estimated to have killed more than 32 million people across the world. Still several thousand people are dying every year in the United States, even though medication exists to prevent the virus from causing harm.

COVID has killed more than two million people in just over a year.

Marc Wagner describes troubling parallels between the response to COVID-19 and the HIV epidemic. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)


‘Déjà vu’: HIV-positive Pittsburghers say we have much to learn about COVID by comparing it to our other deadly epidemic


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