A Tale of Two Pandemics

World AIDS day picture

It was 1981 in Los Angeles, USA and five young previously healthy gay men had come down with a rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). At the same time in New York and California there were reports of a similar group of men succumbing to an unusually aggressive cancer named Kaposi’s Sarcoma. By the end of the year there were 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men, 121 of whom had died. In September 1982, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used the term “AIDS” (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) to describe the disease and a year later a retrovirus, now termed human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was identified as the causative agent of what has since become one of the most devastating infectious diseases and global pandemics to have emerged in recent history, killing over 35 million people globally.[1]

Fast forward to late 2019 with no HIV vaccine in sight and a varying number of new global public health threats emerging in between, in comes SARS-CoV-2, an RNA virus – later to be called COVID 19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) – first reported in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province, China. With symptoms like that of common influenza (which also makes its detection difficult), this new virus spreads incredibly quickly between people, and within months had spread worldwide. Declared as a pandemic by the WHO in March 2020, the world by November 2020 had recorded 62.8 million infections and 1.46 million deaths from COVID-19.[2]

Although both pandemics have different causative agents, symptoms, and modes of transmission, their impact on history, health security, health systems, and social norms across countries is by no means different. With a unanimous demonstration of how a pandemic impacts lives and livelihoods without recourse to socio-economic status, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have shown us that, during a pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Therefore, if we are to succeed in combating the colliding pandemics of HIV and COVID-19, every one of us has a role to play.  

Every year on December 1, people around the world commemorate the World AIDS Day by uniting to show support for people living with and affected by HIV and to remember those who lost their lives to AIDS. This year, with COVID-19 further establishing how health is interlinked with other critical issues such as economic growth, social protection, and reducing inequality, the world is reminded of how a global public health crisis widens the entrenched social and economic inequalities existing in our societies and increases the vulnerability of marginalized groups. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the challenges faced by people living with HIV, women and girls, and key populations, including in accessing life-saving health care. COVID-19 like many other pandemics is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable, the hardest.[3]

However, it is also a wake-up call, an opportunity to do things:

  1. Differently: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt HIV/AIDS response to ensure continuity of services. It has reinforced the need to work in more inclusive and innovative ways to deliver prevention and treatment services.
  2. Better: We have witnessed how political will can bring about change – with governments putting in place extraordinary policy measures and financial resources to save lives and protect livelihoods during the pandemic.
  3. Together: We have seen how shared responsibility and collaboration are instrumental to success. We have had front row seats to how leadership and engagement of communities is key to achieving success – with the private sector, donors, faith leaders and civil society responding to governments’ call to support the multi-sectoral response to the COVID pandemic.

The theme for this year’s World AIDS Day – Global solidarity, shared responsibility – reinforces the need to do things differently, better, and together in our mission to improve global health outcomes

No one government or people can do it alone. Global solidarity and shared responsibility behooves us to view global health responses, including the AIDS response, in a new way. Governments, donors, faith leaders, media, civil society, and every one of us need to play our parts in ending the HIV pandemic and achieving an AIDS free world. The theme reminds us of all we can achieve together if we focus on impact by delivering data-driven, high-quality, people-centered, gender-responsive HIV prevention and treatment services, eliminating stigma and discrimination, promoting human rights, and empowering communities.

On this World AIDS Day, 2020, let us unite our voices in the campaign for #Global solidarity, shared responsibility. Happy World AIDS Day!!!


[1] Paul M.S, Beatrice H.H: Origins of HIV and AIDS Pandemic; Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2011 Sep; 1(1): a006841.

[2] Wagner G.S: Natural History of COVID-19 and current knowledge on treatment therapeutic options; Biomed Pharmacother. 2020 Sep; 129: 110493

[3] UNAIDS 2020: https://www.unaids.org/en/World_AIDS_Day

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