This Thursday marks the 33rd World AIDS Day. Since the virus’ discovery in 1984 it has been the cause of one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, infecting around 80 million people and leading to the deaths of almost half that number. However, despite the tragic reality of the disease, I see it as a symbol of the progress we have made as a society for a number of reasons.
When the human immunodeficiency virus was first discovered in 1984 it was instantly misunderstood and stigmatised. Due to the high rates of infection among gay men at the time, it was seen as a disease that only affected the LGBT community. Throughout the 80s and 90s these harmful misconceptions led to extreme stigmatisation of the queer community as a whole and a marked rise in homophobic attitudes, with clear links that can be made between a rise in anti-LGBT sentiment and fear surrounding the AIDS crisis. Gay men with the disease were often ostracised by families and refused treatment by medical professionals.
Here we see progress, both socially and technologically. We now know, of course, that this is a disease that can affect anyone regardless of gender or sexuality and as such the homophobic attitudes that surrounded the disease have nearly vanished entirely. Medically too, we have made great advances in society since the 1980s. While once those infected were avoided for fear of contagion, we now understand how AIDS is transmitted and as such those with it can be supported so much more readily. The loss of stigma surrounding the virus has resulted in greater awareness, leading to much lower infection rates. While we still have no direct cure for the virus, technological advances mean that we are much more able to mitigate its effects, with death rates in AIDS patients decreasing by more than half since 2010.
Despite the terrible impact that AIDS has had on societies and individuals, it also serves as a clear marker how much progress has been made since it was first discovered back in the 80s. To me, this serves as a surprisingly reassuring message – progress is always being made. Whenever times appear tough, look back to the past for reassurance – so much progress has been made since then, and so much more will be made from now. Things will always get better.
Upper Sixth student