Why Did We Immediately Panic Over Ebola but Not HIV?

Josh Kruger
Josh Kruger

Now that another virus, the Ebola virus, is in the American consciousness, news organizations nationwide have started to report on things those of us familiar with HIV and its history talk about often: scientific jargon surrounding contagiousness and public policy surrounding quarantines and criminalization. That some have made an analogy between the current hysteria around Ebola and the hysteria of the onset of the HIV crisis three decades ago is no surprise.

There are a few key differences, though.

While some reactions to the Ebola non-outbreak outbreak in the United States do appear similar to those around HIV -- namely the unscientific hysteria -- the fact that President Obama hugged an Ebola survivor and took pictures of the embrace makes it automatically and inherently different than HIV.

After all, former President Ronald Reagan felt no need to mention the existence of HIV until thousands of Americans had already died; and, as BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner reported last year, White House officials and members of the press corps openly laughed about HIV in 1984.

Whether this happened is not in dispute. Like it or not, many of my professional predecessors in journalism thought gay men dying of a virus transmitted via gay sex was a laugh riot. It was a different time, some might say. And it certainly was: It was an era when society's empathy was fiercely conditional, reserved only for those human beings behaving acceptably in the eyes of those in power.

The contemptuous reaction to HIV in the 1980s seems to imply something particularly odious that's generally, but not entirely, absent in the current American reaction to Ebola. More to the point: There is no behavioral component to Ebola involving intravenous drug use or sex as there was and is with HIV.

From the historical record, America's elite seemed to have an initial ambivalence to HIV, probably rooted in the idea that, early on, the virus appeared to only affect loathsome undesirables, like gay men or intravenous drug users. Homosexual acts were still criminalized in a great number of states, and the thinking seemed to be that if you were engaged in something as disgusting as sodomy, you got what you deserved.

Then again, maybe the difference between Americans' responses to HIV versus Ebola has something to do with one of the original shorthand acronyms for HIV: GRID. GRID, of course, stood for gay-related immunodeficiency.

Once enough people died and enough protestors demanded action, though, most Americans started to pay attention. And, once HIV began threatening the blood supply and acceptable martyrs like Ryan White appeared, people began to care a bit more.

Eventually, even conservatives cared about HIV: They wanted HIV-positive people to be publicly designated as undesirable -- even forcibly quarantined.

"Everyone detected with AIDS," wrote William F. Buckley Jr., "should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." Buckley offered this suggestion in 1986. "Our society is generally threatened, and in order to fight AIDS, we need the civil equivalent of universal military training."

There it is: Sodomites and drug addicts beware.

To this day, HIV is still considered, quite literally, a "loathsome disease" under most interpretations of laws protecting people from slanderous defamation, alongside serious mental illness and leprosy.

Still, there's something to be said about Americans not caring about Ebola until it started threatening them as opposed to just killing our fellow human beings in far-off Africa. But that's precisely the key difference between HIV and Ebola.

In the early days of the HIV epidemic, those with the most privilege -- straight, white, cisgender men -- never thought that they could acquire HIV. So, they simply did not care until others demanded that they care, or things got too scary. With Ebola, those in power sensed danger immediately and, thus, reacted severely from the get-go.

It took many lives, lots of activism and a lot of tragedy before American politicians and newspapers began to address HIV, even in a hysterical way. In fact, it took exactly 1,450 cases of AIDS and 558 deaths before The New York Times saw fit to write about the virus on its front page, lamented David W. Dunlap.

On the other hand, it took one person with Ebola on American soil to make front page headlines nationwide. This person's presence spurred a comprehensive federal, state and local response to the perceived biological threat of Ebola.

This immediate and alarmist response to Ebola has included similar calls for quarantines. Those calling for the quarantines have asked for wanton human rights violations of those merely suspected of having the virus.

Conservative journalist Mark Davis wrote that Kaci Hickox, the Ebola nurse who shows no signs of infection, is a terrible person because she protested the legally questionable quarantine imposed, irrationally, on her by conservative politicians. "She has only contempt," Davis criticized, "for her fellow [Americans] who are wholly entitled to wonder if the elites know all they think they know about a disease that is fairly recent and until now foreign to our shores."

This hullabaloo was in response to Hickox going for a bicycle ride.

Davis seems to mean to say that Hickox should be forcibly quarantined at the whim of the conservative intelligentsia, none of whom are actually medical professionals. Actual medical professionals, like Lisa Ryan, M.D., the head of the Maine Medical Association, called the quarantine Hickox violated a "knee-jerk, panic reaction" done by state authorities "without looking at the science."

And, after multiple tests, it seems that Hickox never even had Ebola.

HIV icon Peter Staley called this anti-Ebola sentiment "infuriating and disgusting" and eerily reminiscent of the early days of the HIV crisis.

"[It reminds me of] the same people that hated me and my comrades during ACT UP's first few years," Staley lamented on Facebook, "the shocked heterosexuals and self-loathing homosexuals who hated those of us who had the balls to take a stand against ignorance and stigma."

The similarities are certainly apt.

Still, those similarities seem to start with hysteria, something that Americans took years to express in terms of HIV. At least, with Ebola, Americans seem to give half-a-damn early on, stigmatizing or not. It took thousands of deaths before HIV elicited the same knee-jerk, junk science reaction from fearmongers on the American right.

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His work often focuses on HIV/AIDS, cultural stigmas and social problems. You can follow him on Twitter @jawshkruger.