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When We Were ‘The Unvaccinated’

Ronald Reagan loved the gays. Ronald Reagan always loved the gays.

This is, of course, not true. However, given the Orwellian reversals of political discourse, it feels like only a matter of time until conservatives bury The Gipper and liberals realize he was our hero all along.

Republicans are calling police officers cowards and insurrectionists patriots. Inner city (itself an adjective which now means the opposite of what it once denoted) Democrats are suggesting more law enforcement, more prosecutors, more incarceration will return us to the time when cities had no crime. It’s tempting to trace this ideological dyslexia to the wet market of most modern ills — Trumpism — but unclear whether these re-alignments are temporal or this century’s version of the parties swapping racial attitudes in the 1900s.

If our nation’s reversal of political opinions were charted, it might neatly overlay a map of the spread, containment, and resurgence of COVID-19 in the U.S. No matter which side of the spectrum they speak from, whenever I hear someone talking about the pandemic and our societal response to it, I wonder: what if we believed what we used to?

It would be hilarious watching Republican leaders defend patient privacy and oppose the exclusion of high-risk folks from the public square, if only I wasn’t still furious about their philosophical ancestors wanting to tattoo the foreheads of gay men and keep affected children out of classrooms during the HIV/AIDS crisis. It might be amusing to substitute “syphilis” for “coronavirus” whenever a conservative pundit rationalizes promiscuous behavior during an outbreak, until you remember all who have died (and are dying) while partisans defecate until they have the highest mound and all the power.

The gag is how familiar conservative talking points sound to me, how I, too, once believed the sick should not have their behavior used against them when determining if they “deserved” their plight. Dignity, access and outreach used to be among the liberal priorities when dealing with the affected, before a plague came along that allows us to call people stupid, reckless vectors of infection.

The differences between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 — how they are spread, the risks they pose — are innumerable, and so I have no expectation for folks’ reaction to be identical. Still, many people have flipped their views on public health policy without any reflection or nuance, nor humility guided by how they would like to be treated when they are among the suspect class.

My 25-year-old roommate was raised in a conspiratorial household and retains a cavalier aversion to vaccines. He recently conceded he may get the shots once enough time passes to verify their safety, and both my empathy and advice channeled lessons I’ve deferred to throughout this current plague.

“HIV used to be a guaranteed death sentence, and then some pills suddenly came along in 1995 that promised to rescue people,” I said. “There were folks who had legitimate reasons to distrust the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies, and who probably said they were going to wait to make sure these new drugs were safe, and those people are dead.”