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Image: ACT UP

April 5, 2020


Are there any useful comparisons to be made between the two pandemics?

On social media this week, an image circulated of a face mask riffing on David Wojnarowicz’s famous denim jacket, on which he had painted his protest of the FDA’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis. The image has been controversial, but comparisons between government ineptitude in the face of COVID-19 and AIDS are neither groundless nor intrinsically disrespectful.

At the same time, we can ask whether such comparisons are necessarily useful. In a new piece from Boston Review stalwart Michael Bronski, he argues that despite the parallels between the two pandemics, “there is probably less to learn from these comparisons than many now suppose.” Instead, what is abundantly clear is that the United States has learned almost nothing from HIV about how to deal forthrightly and honestly with a major health crisis.

Writing in her new essay, “Love One Another or Die,” Amy Hoffman agrees. She describes the overarching similarity as being one of inaction, and that Trump’s strategy of “ignore it, cover it up, and wish it away . . . while thousands suffer and die” isn’t unprecedented—it’s the status quo. Indeed, it’s exactly what Reagan did during the AIDS crisis. Still, Hoffman argues we can learn a lot from how the queer community came together under seige to care for one another.

And in Alex de Waal’s wide-ranging historical analysis of pandemics published today, he argues that our reaction to COVID-19 can learn from ACT UP’s response to inaction in the face of HIV/AIDS. “Each pandemic is different,” he writes, “but the logic of political action is much the same.”

Supplemented with archival essays that analyze the HIV/AIDS crisis from a range of angles, these three new installments in today’s reading list offer a moment of critical reflection amidst the noise of a news cycle that superficially implies COVID-19 and AIDS are much alike, without actually stopping to reflect on what that might mean for how we act now.

Amy Hoffman
During the AIDS crisis, different contingents of the LGBTQ movement set aside their differences to prioritize mutual care. What can we learn from this strategy today? And why is it still so difficult to talk about AIDS?
Michael Bronski
The HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics are very different, but both reveal that the United States has never understood the connection between community and personal well-being.
Alex de Waal
We should be wary of simplistic uses of history, but we can learn from the logic of social responses.
Jeremy Lybarger
In his acerbic and often hilarious Village Voice column, Gary Indiana documented a cultural world being lost to AIDS and corporate greed.
Andrew Spieldenner

“I was living in fast-forward, trying desperately to have a life before I died.” A veteran AIDS activist recalls living in the Bay Area during the 1990s, the queer people of color usually left out of the epidemic’s history, and how the decade taught him to value endings.

Our weekly themed Reading Lists compile the best of Boston Review’s archive. Sign up for our newsletters to get them straight to your inbox before they appear online.

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