Fear and Collective Memory: Remembering the HIV/AIDS Crisis

Written by: Rosie Byrne

The AIDS Crisis has caused over 35 million deaths worldwide since its outbreak in the 1980s; it produced widespread fear because of its threat to society as an unknown disease. It appeared to be most prevalent amongst the homosexual community, primarily men, intravenous drug users, haemophiliacs and Haitians, due to its spread via sexual contact and via blood. This led to the conception of the ‘4H’ group of primarily affected individuals by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). In order to prevent the transmission of the disease, these social groups were often the victims of misinformed assumptions and, in some cases, ostracization. This was a period of crisis, mainly due to the overwhelming fear that pervaded society: preconceived social attitudes merged with misconceptions and were heightened by mass media coverage that explicitly warned the public about the threat of the disease to the individual. 

Fear arose primarily because of the unknown nature of the disease: the public largely became aware of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s because increasing cases were presented to doctors that were inexplicable both in their cause and their treatments. It was recognised as a disease that weakened the immune system, which was indicated by illnesses like pneumonia or Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer with skin lesions that became associated with AIDS. Nevertheless, it was unclear how the disease was transmitted and individuals were not aware of it until symptoms presented, by which time it was largely too late. Therefore, it appeared to pose a threat to society because it was unknown how it could be contracted or how to recognise someone who had the disease without a diagnosis. 

Furthermore, social attitudes towards individuals perceived to be carriers of the infection encouraged their exclusion by society. The high rates of transmission amongst homosexuals, haemophiliacs, intravenous drug users and Haitians led to their association with the disease, whether they were infected or not. This was particularly evident with the refusal to readmit Ryan White to school in the United States of America as he had contracted HIV through contaminated Factor 8 that is used to treat haemophilia. Moreover, it must be noted that AIDS was originally known as GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, as it was primarily identified with affecting the homosexual community, and it was thought to solely affect this social group. Its further description as a ‘gay plague’ indicated the way in which fear was employed during this period; the allusion to previous pandemics such as the Black Death and illnesses such as cholera and typhus only exacerbated societal fears during this period. 

High rates of transmission also considerably impacted perceptions about the way in which disease was spread and gave rise to many misconceptions about the contraction of HIV/AIDS. These social groups that were seen as primary sources of contagion were socially stigmatised to the point of avoidance because of public belief about AIDS, and this appears to continue: in a 2014 report, the British public thought that HIV was spread through kissing (16%), sharing a glass (5%), spitting (16%), a public toilet seat (4%), and coughing or sneezing (5%). It is evident that these fears were not completely unfounded; whilst the transmission of HIV via saliva is small, it was still a concern for public health. Particular concern in Britain was also drawn to Princess Diana’s insistence that she shake the hands of patients with AIDS without gloves when she opened the newly-established HIV/AIDS ward at London Middlesex Hospital in 1987.

This widespread fear was arguably advanced by the media and mass advertising campaigns to raise awareness and develop public knowledge about AIDS. The British government spent around £5 million on a mass media campaign that used promotional videos, films, and posters for public information in order to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The most prominent imagery associated with these are the ‘iceberg’ and the ‘monolith’, both produced in 1987; they were films narrated by John Hurt, whose voiceover warned about the threat of AIDS to “man or woman”, reinforcing the overwhelming tagline of the campaign: “don’t die of ignorance”. The use of symbolism relating to death such as tombstones and white lilies that might be placed upon a grave encouraged widespread fear of a diagnosis of HIV as ultimately a death sentence. This was further emphasised by the soundtrack employed, that implied doom using church organs and melancholic music. It is notable that leaflets with the phrase “don’t die of ignorance” were sent to every house in the UK. Whilst the extent of promotional material arguably escalated public consciousness about the epidemic, it also fostered public fear and concern about the threat of AIDS. It must be noted that testimony from the 1980s in relation to the AIDS Crisis largely references public health campaigns that warned about the spread of the disease, and the fear that they felt as a reaction to such published material.

Improvements in medical research and subsequent treatments has meant that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence; around 100,000 people in the UK live today with HIV. Treatments such as post-exposure prophylaxis is used to reduce the viral load of HIV within the blood to undetectable levels, meaning that it does not develop into AIDS as it did in the 1980s, when it was incurable. Nevertheless, social stigma still continues as a result of surviving misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. This has been brought to light in several documentaries, especially that of Gareth Thomas, a Welsh professional rugby player who announced he was HIV positive but to untraceable levels on a BBC documentary in September 2019. As such, it is clear that the HIV/AIDS crisis has concluded, but its sociological effects still remain thirty years on.

Image: A 1985 protest in New York City, the hub of the AIDS epidemic and the corresponding art movement. Source: https://mashable.com/2016/10/26/aids-epidemic-study/

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