The picture of COVID-19 today is painfully familiar: black and brown Americans sickened, hospitalized and dying from a deadly virus in disproportionately high numbers. The impact of this pandemic is playing out in ways that are not so dissimilar to what we saw 35 years ago when a new virus began to devastate marginalized communities.
In so many ways, little has changed in 35 years and it is heartbreaking that we seem condemned to forget the lessons and repeat the failures of the past. America remains a patchwork quilt of inequality. Black Americans are more likely to live in poverty, have less access to healthcare and educational opportunities, continue to face discrimination in housing and economic opportunities, and are more prone to homelessness and hunger. This is all fertile ground for the chronic health conditions—diabetes, obesity, HIV, hypertension, asthma, heart disease—that can make COVID-19 so lethal.
The fight against AIDS has never been simply a struggle between us and a virus. Since day one, it has been a struggle against the inequities that enable HIV to prey on certain, mostly disenfranchised, populations. Even with effective treatments and prevention methods, black Americans are far more likely to be infected with HIV than whites. While they account for just 13% of the U.S. population, African Americans accounted for 42% of new HIV infections in 2018.
amfAR was centrally involved in bringing to light the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and brown communities. Then suddenly, the systemic inequities that led to this stark imbalance were thrown into even sharper relief by the brutal murders in quick succession of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the latest in a long line of unprovoked killings of unarmed black Americans.
In the face of government inaction and taking a page from the civil rights movement, in the 1980s AIDS activists took to the streets. They—a largely disenfranchised community of gay men and their allies —understood that the only way to be heard and to effect change was through vocal, visible and sustained protest. The parallel with Black Lives Matter is striking: people were dying because of government inaction and willful neglect. Like the protests of today, those protests were the manifestation of collective anger and frustration.
We cannot hope to successfully address the AIDS epidemic if we look at the virus in isolation. The best treatments, the best prevention, even an effective vaccine will leave success in combatting HIV/AIDS beyond our reach if we don’t address the structural barriers—including and especially racism—that stand in the way of successfully implementing those tools.
Combatting racism, then, is as central to amfAR’s work as the research grants that we fund. Our Founding Chairman Dr. Mathilde Krim, a staunch supporter of the civil rights and anti-Apartheid movements, understood that. So we stand with Black Lives Matter, their fight against racism and injustice, and with the protests that have spread across our nation. Because this fight is our fight, too.