The War This Time: Lessons for Today’s Epidemic from the Battle Against AIDS
Sometimes, the new looks a lot like the familiar. For those over 40, the sight of a septuagenarian Republican president shrugging off a rising health threat which contradicts his ideological predispositions is déjà vu all over again. Today, it’s Donald Trump and his brazen, almost impressive attempts to walk the tightrope of downplaying the threat of the virus while simultaneously taking credit for aggressive steps to stop it, all while locking reality within the prison of his pre-existing worldview: that whatever the circumstance, the Democrats and the media collectively are endeavoring to undermine him. Then, of course, it was Ronald Reagan, and his more genteel elective avoidance of gazing too seriously at the earliest rise of the AIDS epidemic. While the times are different, as is the bug, some of the lessons learned from the past are timeless. As the most recent health crisis America has faced prior to the current looming fight, the battle against AIDS holds lessons in the political sphere that might be of assistance in reacting to COVID-19’s spread.
The first is that science does not give a damn about ideological predispositions, but predispositions appear to care an awful lot about science. Trump’s defining statement about COVID-19 will likely be remembered as his offhand taunt that the malady is a “foreign virus.” Trump has tweeted, in reference to coronavirus, that “we need the wall more than ever,” and has blamed China for the “China Virus”. His House consigliere, Kevin McCarthy, has followed suit and deliberately referred to the disease as “Chinese Coronavirus”. Not to be outdone, Senator Tom Cotton has used the term “Wuhan virus” and declared that “China will pay for this.” Trump, meanwhile, spent most of February downplaying the effect of the virus, and repeatedly expressed far more concern that the CDC’s warnings were spooking the stock market. In each case, by forcing biological imperative into the box of ideological human frailty, the Administration and its fellow travelers fought the wrong enemy as a threat metastasized and in doing so, helped advance the very thing they feared.
The Reagan Administration would understand. Reagan’s presidency was the first in which evangelical Christians played a key role in electoral politics, and their views on gay men and women were unequivocal. Speaking in 1980, Bob Jones III predicted “God’s judgment is going to fall on America as on other societies that allowed homosexuality to…