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Saturday, November 28, 2020
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News + Politics COVID COVID denial is a grim rerun of AIDS denialism

COVID denial is a grim rerun of AIDS denialism

Two decades ago, a cult-like crowd believed that HIV was harmless and AIDS was a plot. Many of them ended up dead.

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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 GuardianAIDS 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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Not wanting to shut down the economy isn’t the same as denialism, Bruce. Political leanings have nothing to do with this issue. I knew an AIDS denialist who was very left wing; same with COVID. Maybe we should learn from Asian countries that have very low deaths and hospitalizations, and have NOT shut down their economies: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, etc. Keeping everyone at home, shutting down the whole country and waiting helplessly for a vaccine that may or may not even materialize for a virus with a death rate of less than 1% isn’t the way to deal with this. Protect the vulnerable; the rest of us should wear masks and get back to working!

  2. Marke, here in SF, ACTUP SF 2.0 was a marginal entity. They got points for funding their political operation with a pot shop, tho, buying the building, quite innovative. The silly string at the Board of Supervsors for Mitch Katz was precious. I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more.

    I don’t think that ACTUP SF 2.0 had much influence on Mbeki. Duesberg in no way amassed the following on HIV denialism that Trump has with covid denialism because he was acting for different wrong reasons, subject to and with very different media tools.

  3. @Gorn you’re wrong. There was a very tight network of denialists like Christine Maggiore and the ACTUP SF leaders who were all directly influenced by Duesberg and worked hard to evangelicize and organize. And the situation with Trump (who also did not invent COVID denial) fanning flames for political reasons echoes the situation in South Africa with Thabo Mbeki, who was directly influenced by Maggiore. Mbeki and his enablers ended up causing the death of up to 300,000 people in the attempt to downplay the virus’s effects.

  4. The ACTUP/SF (V2.0) AIDS denialists were a fringe group of like minded people. It is not like Duesberg ran a Fox News propaganda campaign to promote AIDS denialism.

    Covid19 denialism, on the other hand, was instigated by Trump and the right wing propaganda operation to differentiate and mobilize before the election, similar to climate denial and other reference points in their alternate reality.

    Individuals coming together to do freakish things is not the same thing as the powerful organizing a propaganda campaign to create that alternate reality.

  5. There is a certain percentage of humans who get sucked into conspiracies and no amount of evidence will change their minds. In the past they were a nuisance, but today with social media they can do serious damage and in this case, leave us with many many more dead Americans that should have happened.

    I feel like we need to reprogram a large number of people, who are totally living in a different reality than the rest of us.

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