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What AIDS Taught Us About Fighting Pandemics

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NEW YORK – Thirty-five years ago, in the midst of the new and still somewhat unknown AIDS epidemic, I warned in testimony to the US Congress that we were facing another deadly episode in the long battle between humankind and microbes. If asked to testify again I would say the same thing today. The Crisis of a Lifetime PS OnPoint John Thys/Pool/AFP via Getty Images Free to read How Will the Great Cessation End? PS OnPoint Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images How to Develop a COVID-19

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NEW YORK – Thirty-five years ago, in the midst of the new and still somewhat unknown AIDS epidemic, I warned in testimony to the US Congress that we were facing another deadly episode in the long battle between humankind and microbes. If asked to testify again I would say the same thing today.

Just as it is impossible for us to control tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, our ability to subdue contagious outbreaks is more limited than we like to admit. Despite what we often tell ourselves, we cannot always impose our will upon the natural world.

When it comes to other forms of natural disaster, the private and public sectors have agreed on policies to mitigate the risk. Billions of dollars have been committed to seawalls and other infrastructure to manage the threats posed by tsunamis and hurricanes, and we have long had regulations requiring that high-rise buildings be constructed to withstand tremors.

These measures were instituted to protect people from harm. They were adopted as a matter of course, and did not require debates about which country was to blame or which leaders had failed.

By contrast, in the face of the latest natural disaster, COVID-19, we have not taken a single step toward emulating these previous successes. Instead, the public-health emergency has become highly politicized. Government leaders and parties have been busy accusing each other and international organizations of willfully disregarding the danger at hand. The private sector, meanwhile, has been surprisingly silent, quietly attending to the bottom line and avoiding the costs and challenges that would come with assuming a leadership role.

The Siren Song of Denial

This is not the first time we have been paralyzed in the face of an epidemic. When I testified before Congress 35 years ago, we were in a surprisingly similar situation. In 1985, we were still learning about the virus that causes AIDS. Indeed, we had only recently developed a test that could diagnose an infection. Testing revealed that more than one million people in the United States were HIV-positive, with upward of 20 million people infected globally.

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But even more troubling was the fact that we had no way to stop the progression of the disease. We anticipated that the vast majority of those infected would, over a period of ten years or so, end up with serious illnesses that would threaten their lives and tax the health systems upon which we all depended.

Although there are obvious differences between the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the human immunodeficiency virus, there also are striking similarities between the two crises that can inform the choices we make today.

In both cases, for example, we failed to notice the warning signs. Even when the AIDS epidemic was fully upon us and millions were already infected worldwide, there was still a widespread belief that we had nothing to worry about.

In a 1985 cover story, Discover...

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