Forty years ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control first reported a cluster of cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among otherwise healthy young men – the first report of the disease that would eventually be identified as AIDS. Waves and waves of unrelenting death and suffering would follow in an unending nightmare that didn’t have to be.
From that crisis grew high-impact activism that was strategic, confrontational, and unrelenting. Led by queer liberation and civil rights activists, people with AIDS and their communities became disease, pharmaceutical, public health, human rights, and policy experts – out of necessity and bravery. The movement building and direct action of AIDS activists catalyzed the development of highly effective antiretroviral medicines, and then demanded pharmaceutical companies lower the price of life-saving drugs – in some cases to less than 99% of their initial price. When racist and nativist policymaking said that global access to treatment was impossible, activists from the South and North worked together to force change. Today, 21.7 million of the 38 million people living with HIV worldwide are accessing life-saving treatment.
Forty years after the first Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), AIDS is far from over – and it could have been. Oppressed, marginalized, and criminalized communities are still at greatest risk of HIV, and as we’ve experienced over the past 18 months are also at greatest risk of COVID-19. AIDS taught us 40 years of lessons to apply to the COVID-19 pandemic, and activists are fighting like hell to end both. We have a vital role to play: to ensure the world does not get comfortable with ongoing mass death and disease, to confront pharma greed and political avarice, and to protect human rights as a fundamental aspect of health. AIDS isn’t over for any of us until it is over for all of us. Similarly, COVID-19 isn’t over for any of us until it is over for all of us.
Today, we’re marking this date in boundless grief and righteous anger, resolute in our fight, committed to ending the deadly pandemics that are driven by pharma greed, nationalism, racism, transphobia, criminalization of sex work and drug use, misogyny, and homophobia.