Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies, discusses how the HIV/AIDS crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic parallel one another and how both are teaching opportunities.
There are several parallels between the HIV/AIDS crisis and COVID-19. We must achieve equity in both by asking what are we doing about it and by continuing to fight, explained Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies.
What lessons can we carry forward from parallels between the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think that it's very clear that the ways we think about public health and social justice and health equity and the rights of patients are directed in great part by what happened during the early days of AIDS. So I think that that whole perspective on disparities and inequity, which unfortunately continues to exist—we didn’t solve it—it has its roots in that. What we need to do is move this forward.
I've said on more than one occasion, over the last few weeks, I am tired of documenting disparities. Let’s just make things be equal, let's achieve equity. We know that Black folk are more likely to die of COVID-19. That's horrifically awful. What are we doing about it? Just tell me that. What are we doing about it? Gay men are more likely to acquire HIV. Okay, what are we doing about it? And so this is what has to happen, the paradigm shift.
I also think the other thing that happened as a result of the AIDS epidemic is that for a very long time, gay people, lesbians, bisexual people, trans people were invisible to the health care profession. The AIDS epidemic, for better or worse, required that the medical profession turn its attention and recognize LGBTQ people as part of the population. But we still have a long way to go. The majority of states do not even have sexual identity and gender identity as demographics on their intake forms. But we are going to keep fighting this battle.
The other thing I wish that we had learned more during COVID-19 is that new information arises daily. I wrote a piece a few months ago where I compared the toilet seats of the ’80s to the plastic supermarket bags of the current time. It's like, “Oh, I'm gonna get HIV from a toilet. Oh, I'm gonna get COVID from a plastic bag from a supermarket.” What did we learn? That those things were wrong.
The lesson from COVID-19 is: infections do occur, you can protect yourself, but irrational things and irrational thinking are not going to be helpful here. So if you want to be safe, you wear your mask, you wash your hands, you get your vaccine. There are things you can do to make your life better. If you don't want to acquire HIV, you use a condom, you’re on PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], you have sex with undetectable partners. There are things you can do. So people make decisions, and they can make decisions that will keep them safe.