By now you’ve probably seen social media posts like the Twitter thread from South Dakota nurse Jodi Doering about patients dying of COVID, literally gasping for breath, and still denying the disease is real. Or Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke’s posts about “Thanksgiving truthers” planning a normal holiday gathering because “being scared is for liberals.” COVID denial is strange and scary.
But it’s not new. I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends.
From the mid-1990s to 2001 I wrote a series of articles—for the Bay Guardian, AIDS Treatment News and several other publications—about AIDS denialists, a cult-like but briefly influential collection of folks who insisted that HIV was harmless and AIDS wasn’t even a real disease. All you had to do to stay healthy, they insisted, was avoid drugs—including those “toxic” anti-HIV meds—which were all part of a sinister government/Big Pharma company plot to poison people by selling them pricey and deadly pharmaceuticals.
It was, to put it simply, nuts. Especially when you consider that the movement achieved its greatest influence, at least here in the Bay Area, after effective anti-HIV combination treatment had begun literally lifting people with AIDS out of their deathbeds and back into a reasonably normal existence.
But it did have a considerable following for a while. A talk by the theory’s leading proponent, UC Berkeley Professor Peter Duesberg, drew a packed crowd to the Metropolitan Community Church in the Castro. When Duesberg published his creepily dishonest book, Inventing the AIDS Virus, KQED’s Michael Krasny gave him a full hour to spout his falsehoods. Yes, Krasny attempted to challenge Duesberg, but manifestly hadn’t done the homework needed to do so effectively.
The thing is, these folks weren’t hard to debunk. All you had to do was check their footnotes. Duesberg and other writers like Christine Maggiore, author of a bizarre little booklet titled What If Everything You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? , regularly made “factual” assertions that were easily contradicted by reviewing the scientific literature—often by the very references they claimed as “proof.” They had a skillful line of patter and a good set of talking points. Just no actual facts.
But the lure of the cult was strong. And it’s not hard to see why many took comfort in the notion that they didn’t need to worry about safe sex and didn’t have to ingest expensive medicines, which back then often had to be taken on a rigid schedule and sometimes caused really unpleasant side effects.
Like many cults, this one had an aggressive side, including a denialist faction that took over ACT UP San Francisco. When I began publishing articles debunking their nonsense, three of its members started routinely accosting me in the streets, screaming at the top of their lungs that I was a murderer.
Another denialist, annoyed that in an exchange of website comments I’d pointed out that her “logic” had uncomfortable echoes of Nazi Germany, threatened a libel suit. Utterly groundless, but enough to scare the site into taking down the whole exchange. That, of course, was the point.
All four of those individuals are now dead.
And they all could almost certainly have been saved, as they entered their death spirals during the era of effective drug combination therapy that they chose not to take. As far as I’ve been able to learn, all went to their graves still believing that what was killing them wasn’t real. The lure of the cult is strong.
At least two other people I knew who fell under the spell of AIDS denial—not as vicious as the aforementioned but just as duped—also died of AIDS-related causes.
When I see and read of COVID denial, it all looks too familiar: the dismissal of facts, the venomous denunciations of anyone trying to tell the truth as either bought off or part of the Evil Conspiracy: same cult, same rhetoric, different disease.
But this new denialist cult has weapons the AIDS denialists didn’t. COVID denial has social media, instantly amplifying its nonsense to hundreds of millions via Facebook. It has right-wing “news” channels repeating its talking points. It has governors, state legislatures, members of Congress. It has the president of the United States, who has turned COVID denial into a badge of MAGA honor.
I don’t know how we get out of this. I truly don’t. But I do know a couple of things:
Stay home this Thanksgiving.
Avoid crowded, indoor spaces.
Wear a damn mask.
Like I said, I’ve seen this movie before. You won’t like how it ends.
Bruce Mirken is a Bay Area writer who now makes most of his living in nonprofit communications.