How the Fight Against AIDS Can Inform the Fight Against Covid-19

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci saw early on how the virus was killing people whose ability to fight disease had weakened disastrously. “I said, ‘Whoa, we really have an issue here,’ ” he said. “It seems to be spreading and spreading.”

Dr. Deborah L. Birx, his colleague in the current struggle to tame the novel coronavirus, recalled moments “when you not only couldn’t make a diagnosis, you didn’t know what the problem was, and you didn’t know how to treat it.”

“It was,” she said, “devastating.”

Neither of them had the coronavirus pandemic in mind when they made those comments. Instead, they were reflecting on a much earlier time in their public health careers — the 1980s and ’90s — when another plague raised discomfiting questions about how vigorously the United States dealt with ruinous infection. For both doctors, the enemy then was H.I.V., the human immunodeficiency virus, which at its direst led to the life-threatening acquired immune deficiency syndrome, best known as AIDS.

As shown in this latest offering from Retro Report, which uses video to cast a spotlight on past events and help illuminate the present, the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s resembled the coronavirus pandemic in a notable respect: It caught this country napping.