But this isn’t a sequence in a news report from an overwhelmed Covid ward. The year is 1985 and this is a scene from “It’s a Sin,” a searing British television miniseries that explores the AIDS crisis over a ten-year period through the lens of those that lived it.
But — when it comes to the public health response — have governments and politicians learned the lessons of the past?
Marc Thompson, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 at the age of 17 and now works promoting public health in underserved communities in the UK, doesn’t think so. “I have yet to speak to a government minister working on the Covid response who has asked the question as to what we have learned from the HIV and AIDS crisis,” says Thompson.
Even if the comparisons are obvious, the context is different. At the peak of the AIDS crisis, many victims died alone, not because of contamination fears — though those certainly existed — but, as writer Russell T. Davies’ series makes clear, because of shame.
Funerals for Covid-19 victims are so sparsely attended because coronavirus thrives at social gatherings, regardless of whether their purpose is to commemorate or celebrate. Many AIDS victims were buried alone simply because of the stigma attached to those who contracted the disease.
When one of the gay characters in Davies’ show dies of complications from AIDS, their family gathers to burn clothes, photographs, books and memories, as a way of excising them — and the shame that was so commonly associated with the condition — from their lives.
There are striking contrasts between the crises, too.
“Only when the UK government woke up to the fact that the straight population would be at risk [from AIDS] did they actually finally speed up their response to the threat of the crisis,” says Lisa Power, a co-founder of Britain’s foremost LGBT lobby group, Stonewall, and an adviser on “It’s A Sin.”
“One of the reasons there has been such an immediate response to Covid is because it affects the general population. It is far more random than HIV in who it infects,” she says. “Everyone has a grandmother. But not everyone had a gay friend back then, and not everyone has a gay friend now.”
AIDS response hindered by homophobia
Thompson says that the lack of urgency in responding to the AIDS crisis occurred largely because “the bodies that were the most affected were the bodies that weren’t valued.”
HIV and AIDS campaigners in the UK say that the fact the response to coronavirus has been significantly more timely than the reaction to AIDS comes down to widespread homophobia and a societal and political disregard for marginalized groups.
“The press, and the tabloid newspapers in particular, were essentially saying that this disease would only affect gay people and ‘junkies’ [intravenous drug addicts] and it wasn’t something to worry about because they don’t matter,” Power says.
For those who have lived through both crises — particularly those who remain part of the battle against the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, the huge contrast in responses, highlighted by “It’s a Sin,” is telling — but it is the similarities, and the repetition of past grave mistakes, that worry them most.
It is a strange time to watch “It’s a Sin,” says Thompson. It is simultaneously an “emotional, occasionally triggering watch and a fun one,” he says. The series — met with wildly enthusiastic reviews in the UK since its launch in January — will stream on HBO Max in the US from February 18. (CNN and HBO share the same parent company, WarnerMedia.)
Throughout the series, there is exuberance and euphoria shared between members of the LGBTQ+ community as they navigate their late teens and early twenties at raucous house parties and what Thompson describes as “grimy little pubs where the dancefloor lay next to the bar.”
Yet where there is unabashed pleasure and delight to be found in “It’s a Sin,” there is also grief as the shadow of AIDS that hangs over the first episode gradually envelops the characters.
Still, much like AIDS, Covid-19 has robbed us of collective joy and suddenly forced us to confront trauma and death on a daily basis — and as the parallels between the two epidemics don’t stop there, with some key lessons of the past remaining unlearned, HIV and AIDS activists are experiencing a sense of déjà vu.