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The value of compassion in dark times

The parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the current crisis are stronger than you might think

I recently finished watching It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’ moving drama set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in London. It follows four young gay men, late teens only, over the course of a decade from their moving in together in 1981 through the horrors of the years that followed.

The AIDS epidemic, sadly, has the makings of any great drama. There is bold fun at the start, but with hints of trouble brewing. There is denial, heartbreak, and then death of mostly young adults on a scale that is barely
imaginable. It can sometimes seem that society has become numbed to the tragedy of AIDS by the tincture of time. But we are reminded that many did their level best to be numbed to the epidemic, even when it was at its peak, compartmentalising it as something that only affected those who “had it
coming” through committing the titular sin.

The epidemic unfolding on your screen steers the mind inevitably toward the one that is unfolding on your street. While the early AIDS epidemic and Covid-19 are distanced by time, tempo, and those affected, there are similarities too. A new-found incrimination of human contact has chilled our affections and made relationships anaemic. Misinformation is rampant and fatal. And there is an unwelcome whiff of consequentialism in the public mood that sees the misery as limited to those who have earned it.

There is, in other words, plenty of bad news to share around. But if there are any positives to be drawn from the AIDS epidemic, one should be that we learn from our mistakes. Are there lessons we can learn from AIDS that have relevance today? I think so.

Misinformation about Covid-19 is halfway around the world before scientific rebuttal has a chance to get its evidence-based pants on

First, personal responsibility is nuanced. AIDS was easily categorised by polite society as a “gay cancer”, springing from promiscuity and unsafe sex. In their eyes, some people make bad choices and bad things result. Aside from being inaccurate, this was unhelpful. It allowed stigma to blossom
and bolstered people’s reluctance to get tested, but also abdicated the government of responsibility to change things. Our choices are influenced by the world around us, and good government is capable of having a positive influence. Safe sex messages and free condoms all changed the
course of the epidemic and gave us a better world.

Today, howls from the media and much of society lay the blame for the spread of Covid-19 at the door of individual wrongdoers. And it is true that many have made bad choices that have cost us dearly. But we should not be too hasty in letting government off the hook here – our leaders have the
power, through edict and message, to shape our actions for the better. When they fail in this duty, then they share responsibility for much of the harm.

Secondly, misinformation kills. The destructiveness of AIDS was amplified by those who, through ignorance or malice, spread falsehoods about the virus. Charlatans still tell tales about being cured of the virus through sex
with a virgin, warn of the disease being spread on toilet seats, or suggest that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Lukewarm or (in the case of Ronald Reagan) absent efforts to counter this propaganda in the early years of the epidemic had a heavy cost.

Misinformation about Covid-19 is halfway around the world before scientific rebuttal has a chance to get its evidence-based pants on. The tissue of lies about government conspiracies, vitamin supplements, and “just another flu” is extensive. Its consequences are apparent everywhere, with those who spurn scientific advice realising the truth when it is too late. Authorities in Ireland have been making a fair effort to deal in accurate information.

They should now consider “information inoculation” – pre-emptively addressing rumours and refuting them before they have the opportunity to take hold. Some will argue that a government denial amounts to guilt in the eyes of many. Perhaps, but I believe the balance of risks favours taking on these lies.

Finally, the importance of compassion. The most poignant aspect of It’s a Sin is not that people become ill, but the void of love these men encounter when they become ill. They are met on all sides by distancing, denial, and closed doors. It is hard to exaggerate the moral failures of so many during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, which sharpened the pain of illness for sufferers. The few who can still show kindness to the sick glow brightly.

For too many in the past 12 months also, their final hours have been spent in a sterile room without even their families by their side. When our treatments fail, kindness and compassion may be all we have to offer, but we shouldn’t forget the difference they can make.

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