World AIDS Day Is Grim Reminder of an Ongoing Epidemic Amid COVID-19

December 1 is World AIDS Day, and as the world waits on an effective vaccine for COVID-19, we look at the ongoing AIDS epidemic and how the coronavirus has threatened treatment for those living with HIV. Author and journalism professor Steven Thrasher says the coronavirus has amplified racial, class and other disparities, just as AIDS has done for decades, and that treatments must have an antiracist and anti-capitalist foundation in order to be successful. “HIV/AIDS has continued to kill way too many people. Almost 700,000 people died last year,” says Thrasher. “The problem is not just the drugs. It’s the conditions around people’s lives that lead them to become affected by viruses.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today is World AIDS Day. As the world waits on an effective COVID-19 vaccine and the U.S. sees skyrocketing cases that shatter every world record, we turn now to look at the ongoing AIDS epidemic and how the coronavirus has threatened treatment for those living with HIV. Around 33 million lives have been lost to AIDS in the past four decades. This is the head of the World Health Organization speaking Monday.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: There is some evidence that people living with HIV may have an increased risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19. This increased risk has been compounded by disruptions to treatment for people living with HIV. In a WHO survey of 127 countries earlier this year, more than a quarter reported partial disruption to antiretroviral treatment for people with HIV.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Chicago to speak with Steven Thrasher, professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, author of the forthcoming book, The Viral Underclass: How Racism, Ableism and Capitalism Plague Humans on the Margins. His new piece is out in Scientific American. It’s headlined “World AIDS Day Is a Grim Reminder That We Have [Many Pandemics] Going On.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Thrasher. Talk about that more than one pandemic and what today means.

STEVEN THRASHER: Thank you, Amy. According to the World Health Organization, there are actually about 20 pandemics going on, that include, of course, COVID-19, Zika and HIV/AIDS. And HIV/AIDS has continued to kill way too many people. Almost 700,000 people died last year. As I write about in my piece, the sort of good news, as good as that kind of devastating news can be, is that it’s declined a great deal. But we really real risk — as the clip was just saying a moment ago, we risk the possibility that that could go back up.

And what’s really concerning to me, as the previous two doctors were speaking about vaccination coming out, is that a pharmacological intervention alone is not going to get us out of the death and destruction we’re seeing. There have been various effective medications for HIV for the past quarter of century, and yet tens of millions of people have died since that time. The problem is not just the drugs; it’s the conditions around people’s lives that lead them to become affected by viruses.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you explain that, why, despite the antiretroviral drugs that have come on the scene over these 25 years or so, that rates of AIDS continue to increase?

STEVEN THRASHER: Yeah. So, in a word, the problem is capitalism. The drugs work. We have to get them to people. And it’s not just a matter of getting the drugs to people; it’s that the whole conditions of their life have to be life-sustaining and valuable.

So, there’s a fantastic paper that I’m citing in my piece by Emily Benfer and a number of co-authors in the Journal of Urban Health, and it writes about the connection — they write about the connection between eviction and COVID-19, that evicting people from their homes is creating an increased amount of COVID-19 transmission. And something very similar has happened with HIV and AIDS. The viruses transmit very differently, but they affect similar populations because people are subject to the same overall terrible conditions.

So, if somebody doesn’t have a home, if somebody is homeless and doesn’t have employment, they don’t have health insurance, they’re not going to be able to get HIV medication. And HIV meds work. For the populations that got them, they not only saved the life of the person, they keep them from transmitting the virus onward, and that way, they sort of act like a vaccination. But certain populations never really got the drugs. And as I’m writing about in my book, according to CDC data, in 2015, the rate of AIDS for Black America was actually slightly higher than it had ever been for white America before there were any drugs at all. And that was after there had been drugs around for about 20 years. So, if we’re only depending upon drugs to address a crisis, it’s not going to help the people who are most at risk.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could extrapolate that, the issue of racial disparities around HIV/AIDS and how they have emerged or continue to develop in terms of the coronavirus, because already, obviously, the coronavirus, from the very beginning, was afflicting African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans at much higher rates than white Americans.

STEVEN THRASHER: Well, certainly. So, to look at only one variable, that’s an easy one to understand what’s happening, is to look at the issue of who is unhoused in America. White people are the majority of people in the United States still, and they are a minority of those who are unhoused. African Americans are only about 13% of the population and are a majority of the unhoused. And so, everything that comes along with not having a home — being policed, not having health access, jobs, ending up in the informal economy, where you’re more likely to be arrested and sexually assaulted — all of that is one of the reasons why HIV is more prevalent amongst African Americans. And if you don’t get the drugs, then the virus will concentrate in a certain population.

And now we’re seeing something very similar happening with COVID-19. People who don’t have the structural support that they need for a healthy life, who are not able to work from home, who are not able to live with space — some of it’s just kind of mathematics. If you look at how influenza moved before and how much square footage people need, Latinx people, Native Americans, African Americans have less living space. And when they’re more likely to be evicted — which is one of the brilliant things about this paper, is that when people are evicted, sometimes they end up on the street, but usually the first stop is that they end up doubling up with other people, and so the households get even more dense, and there’s more COVID transmission likely to be happening. And that’s what we’re really seeing with Latinx, Black and Native American communities now, is that as they are more likely to be evicted, as they’re more likely to lose work in the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re living in denser populations, in denser homes, with other people who are more likely to be frontline workers and more likely to be exposed in the service industry and not have jobs where they can work from home.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you quickly, before we end, about the nomination of Neera Tanden. President-elect Biden has nominated two women of color in key economic positions: Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton labor economist, to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, and Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. She would be the first woman of color and first South Asian woman in the role. But many progressives object to her playing a role in the incoming administration, citing CAP’s cozy relationship with corporate funders, her record of antagonizing and undermining progressive Democrats, and her hawkish foreign policy positions, also has come under criticism for her support of slashing Social Security. Can you comment on the nomination of Neera Tanden to head OMB?

STEVEN THRASHER: Well, I understand why progressives are upset, and I was very upset, because she represents what a lot of us are frustrated with the Democratic Party, that the people that they’re responding to are not the majority of Americans. They’re responding to Wall Street. They’re responding to pharmacological producers. And those are the kind of people that want to keep drugs high, and think that the profit on drugs, for HIV, potentially for COVID-19, is more important than actually saving people’s lives.

And I think that when we’re looking at other people of color — I’m very honored to be on the show with Dr. Pernell and Dr. Peek — we have to look at people who have an active commitment to racial justice and ending healthcare disparities. That does not apply to everyone who’s coming into the Cabinet. And we don’t want someone — I don’t want someone like Neera Tanden not taking into account that we must keep people from being unhoused. They have to have healthcare access; otherwise, how are they going to get access to a vaccination that has to be given over two or three doses over weeks?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, 10 seconds. Do you see Medicare for All as a racial justice solution?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steven Thrasher, I want to thank you for being with us, professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, faculty member of Northwestern’s Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. We’ll link to his piece in Scientific American, just out today, “World AIDS Day Is a Grim Reminder That We Have [Many Pandemics] Going On.”

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran. Special thanks to Julie Crosby, Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.