SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – The Bay Area has become one of the hot spots for the coronavirus, but it’s not the first time doctors here have faced a menacing outbreak. In the 1980s, AIDS ravaged the gay community and one man who was there says it’s far different this time.
In 1981, the Castro was a place of freedom for gay people, but then a mysterious illness began killing young gay men. It came to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, and for a long time no one understood how it was transmitted.
John Hemm remembers how scary it was. He was a young man living in the Castro and saw almost all his friends die.
“Mortuaries wouldn’t embalm the bodies,” says Hemm. “Cemeteries wouldn’t let them bury the bodies in the cemeteries if you died from AIDS.”
Today, Hemm is seeing another deadly pandemic with COVID-19, but he says it feels very different.
“I wish HIV/AIDS would have had the same coverage. The approach to the news stories with people who are ill with COVID-19 is much more sympathetic to their cause,” said Hemm.
Nowadays, the White House holds daily press briefings about COVID-19, but in the 80s, it took then-President Ronald Reagan years to even mention the word AIDS.
At the time, AIDS was a death sentence, but medicine has advanced so there is much more hope with COVID-19. As a result, a lot more resources are being focused this time around.
Hemm believes there is another reason the public reaction is so different.
“With HIV it was just a gay disease…a horrible gay disease, and with coronavirus, anybody could get it. So that makes it OK. ‘Oh, if I can get it then it’s OK,’” he said.
Hemm says he’s glad the fight against the coronavirus is getting an all-out effort, but he can’t help wondering how many of his friends might still be alive if the same thing had happened back then.
“What’s really sad is that I had to watch them die, and nobody did anything,” says Hemm.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two epidemics is that with COVID-19, people are being isolated, but with AIDS they were truly alone.