In 1981, doctors in New York began noticing the first signs of a modern-day plague. Patients complained of violet-coloured spots on their bodies. It was Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer that could kill by spreading to the liver, spleen or lungs. "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," reported The New York Times.
The underlying disease that would later become known as AIDS cut like a scythe through what was still a marginalized, often despised community. As David France notes in his new book How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, homosexual acts were still illegal in most of the United States. Just being suspected of homosexuality could get you banned from teaching, denied an apartment or blocked from entering the country.
As AIDS spread – claiming hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of American lives – some called it God's judgment on sinful behaviour. Republican senator Jesse Helms said that "we've got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being."
Led by the handful of activists portrayed by Mr. France, gay organizations fought back, educating people about safe sex, pushing the government for more AIDS funding and working with researchers to explore the drugs that would eventually tame the disease. In the end, they triumphed, helping not only to combat the plague but to speed the liberation movement that led all the way to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Today, North America faces another deadly plague. Again, most of the victims come from a shunned group. Again, authorities have been painfully, shamefully, slow to take action. Only now, with hundreds already dead and the plague spreading from the West Coast to Central Canada, are governments coming together in earnest to do something about a shocking wave of fatal drug overdoses, many linked to fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid.
When AIDS was spreading, activists often argued that governments would have moved much faster if a plague had cut through middle-class America instead of the gay ghettos of New York and San Francisco. It is hard not avoid a similar conclusion today. Imagine the outcry if scores of people had been cut down by tainted water in North Vancouver or a virus in Surrey instead of an illicit drug in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside or another disadvantaged place. Political leaders would have fallen over each other to show they were attacking the problem.
Illegal-drug users face even more prejudice today than gay men did when AIDS broke out in the early 1980s. It is hard for most of us to muster sympathy for those who snort, inject or swallow an illegal drug that could leave them dead. We think of them – when we think of them at all – as a shadowy alien tribe, unknown, incomprehensible and probably dangerous. It is the same failure of empathy that led authorities to overlook the fate of missing and murdered indigenous women.
To beat the plague, those attitudes need to change. After a meeting in Toronto on Monday about the overdose crisis, Mayor John Tory said that governments should look on drug addiction and dependency not as a criminal or moral problem but as a health problem, and sufferers should be treated no differently than if they had lung or heart trouble. The move to open three supervised drug-injection sites in Toronto is one sensible, non-judgmental step toward making this shift in thinking.
The AIDS crisis helped people to understand that its principal casualties were simply fellow human beings facing a terrible affliction. If the overdose crisis can persuade Canadians to feel the same way about those in the thrall of dangerous drugs, then something good may come from all this suffering.