“Disaster is a crisis situation that far exceeds the capabilities”- Enrico Quarantelli, 1985.

In the same year that Quarantelli gave this quote, people were beginning to recognize the disastrous magnitude of HIV/AIDS. By 1985, there was at least one case of HIV reported in every single region of the Earth. AIDS-related deaths were increasing exponentially, and attempts to prevent these rising numbers were futile at best and obstructive at worst. While HIV/AIDS might not be the first thing people imagine when they think of ‘disaster’, I would argue that the AIDS crisis very much adheres to the definition given above.

In this blog I will be analyzing the history of the  AIDS crisis as a case study of disaster management. I’ll be looking into the social, political, and scientific factors that governed the global response to this outbreak. I’ll also be considering the ways that HIV/AIDS shifted the responsibility of disaster management from the domain of the state onto the people. More importantly, I’ll be analyzing the consequences of these changes on the institutional structures governing the modern state.

There’s nothing about HIV/AIDS (or Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) that invites simple categorization, not scientifically, not culturally, and certainly not historically. As a catastrophe, it’s not fully a ‘natural’ disaster but it’s also not quite a ‘man-made’ one either. Medically speaking, it’s not actually an easily contracted virus, and yet globally it’s one of the most widely spread diseases of the 21st century. Over and over again HIV/AIDS defies generalizations. As such, I want to take some time to state the distinctions and terms that I will be using throughout my research project.

This project will focus on the history of the AIDS crisis and not on the history of HIV/AIDS. Though I stated this before, I want to make sure that these two things are not conflated:

  • The AIDS crisis began on June 5th 1981, when the CDC released a report stating that five “previously healthy” gay men in Los Angeles were suffering from the same rare strain of pneumonia. The appearance of this respiratory infection was unprecedented in these well-off 30-somethings, all of whom had no prior medical reason to explain their complete immune failure. The AIDS crisis ended in approximately 2000, seven years after AIDS-related deaths reached their all-time high in 1993, and five years after the first antiretroviral drug therapy regimes became available. By 2000, the cycle of disaster management reached its conclusive preparedness phase, with government officials and figures like Magic Johnson cultivating awareness in the developed populations in ways that activists simply couldn’t.
  • In contrast, no-one really knows when HIV actually began. The most widely accepted scientific theory is that the closely-related Simian Immunodeficiency Viruses (SIV) which affect large primate populations like chimps and gorillas jumped the species barrier in the early 20th century through unsafe bushmeat practices. As well, the history of HIV/AIDS is still ongoing, continuing on as a pandemic even after its cycle of crisis ended.
  • This might seem like a very ‘Western-centric’ way of classifying a global disaster. In many ways, it is. But I maintain that even though HIV/AIDS continues to spread across the globe, we now have treatments for it, tools of prevention, education tactics, and other strategies for coping and recovering. As such, I would argue that the catastrophic history of the AIDS crisis has ended even though HIV/AIDS has not.

Here are the terms of my project:

  • Throughout this blog I’m not going to be assigning blame on any party involved for the progression of the pandemic. I’m more interested in analyzing the causes and the consequences of these actions and their historical significance on the crisis.
  • Because this is a pandemic, I’m going to try to include as many sources from as many places as possible. That being said, many of these sources are going to be American because historically, Americans were the population with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS. This has since changed.
  • Due to the recent nature of the AIDS crisis, distinctions between primary and secondary source materials are going to be somewhat difficult to define. I’m going to do my best not only to express what I’m using each source for, but also why I decided to use it as such, especially if I feel there’s any uncertainty.
  • Because this is a history project, I won’t be engaging too much with contemporary critical theory on the subject. However, I’m going to record anything I find in case anyone out there (including Dr. Egan) is interested in reading further on the subject.
  • All of the links on this post are citations. I included them in this post because of the amount of science-based information I was using. I’m not sure if I’ll continue this system in the future.

And so, being mindful of what this research project is and what it isn’t,  I’m excited to see where this blog takes me.