It is common to hear people echo the famous dictum of the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the last few weeks I have again found myself wondering whether this is a useful way to think of the value of history. Consider these facts: About this time in 1984—exactly thirty years ago–an Indiana middle school student named Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. Ryan had hemophilia, and was thought to have become infected with HIV as the result of transfusions and other blood products taken to alleviate his bleeding disorder. Faced with the news of Ryan’s illness, the principal of Ryan’s school and the local school board bowed to the pressure brought by the families of Ryan’s classmates and decided to bar him from attending the school.
Around the same time that Ryan White contracted HIV/AIDS, movie legend Rock Hudson also received his diagnosis. He was the first American celebrity to publicly acknowledge his condition as an AIDS patient. Hudson was likely infected with HIV at a time when the disease was called GRID, an acronym for “gay-related immune deficiency,” linking the disease not to an actual pathology, but to a sexual orientation widely disfavored in the US. Hudson died in 1985.
But even before Hudson’s death the FDA had approved the first commercially distributed test to detect HIV in blood and identify actual sources of infection. By then it was reasonably clear that AIDS need not be associated with suspect groups or social contact; it was a disease that could be linked to a specific pathogen.
Yet pundits and politicians continued to exploit the hysteria that surrounded AIDS.
In 1986 columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. argued in the pages of the New York Times that people with AIDS should be tattooed as a public health measure, to signal to others their disease status, and prevent disease spread. A year later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms sponsored legislation that directed the president to add HIV to the list of diseases that could be used to bar infected individuals from traveling or migrating to the US. These were but two of the measures proposed as “public health” interventions. Though they were both likely to be ineffective and repressive to those whom they would have touched, the wave of fear that followed the spread of AIDS made them sound reasonable to many.
These events occurred as the frenzy of hatred Ryan White had faced forced his family to move to another town. He endured public taunts and death threats before the disease killed him in 1990. Because of his efforts against AIDs discrimination, White became a symbol for AIDS activism. Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act in the wake of his death, and it continues to be one of the more stable funding sources for AIDS treatment. White’s struggle against discrimination in the last five years of his life reminds us of how easily ignorance persists in the face of science and how regularly fear and bigotry triumph over compassion and tolerance, particularly when new diseases emerge into public consciousness.
Fast forward to 2014. In a year’s end roundup, PolitiFact.com , the fact checking service, analyzed the firestorm of media coverage that followed the death of Thomas Duncan, who traveled to the US from Monrovia, Liberia and died of Ebola in Dallas less than a month later. PolitiFact noted that following Duncan’s death some sixteen different claims were made about Ebola by politicians and pundits. Subjected to the Truth-o-Meter, most of those claims were deemed false. They included statements that Ebola was “incredibly infectious” and could be transmitted by casual contact, that illegal immigrants carried the disease across the Mexican border, and that the disease was generated in a bioweapons lab as part of a conspiracy by wealthy liberals. These claims and others let PolitiFact.com to designate the hype and exaggeration surrounding Ebola as the “2014 Lie of the Year.”
Along the way, students with families from Liberia, or those whose parents treated Ebola patients were excluded from some schools and publicly taunted. Politicians proposed closing the borders and excluding all people from Liberia as potential threats to public health, and health officials in one state declared that anyone who had been in west Africa—including doctors most likely to be experts in treating Ebola, should not travel to the convention where the newest studies would be discussed and methods of treating of Ebola could be taught.
Many if not most of the more prominent politicians and media mavens who have amplified the fear of Ebola are old enough to remember the lessons that should have been learned when they were 30 years younger, and AIDS was in the headlines daily. One might think that in the time since AIDS burst upon America’s consciousness we would have learned how to think about and deal with epidemic disease.
But that would require a belief that in the face of potential epidemics, rational discourse trumps fear-mongering. Unfortunately, history gives us precious little evidence that such a conclusion is accurate.
Paul A. Lombardo, Bobby Lee Cook Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law, is a lawyer/historian who specializes in health law, medico-legal history, and bioethics.