New Internationalist

The Plague Mentality

Issue 169

new internationalist
issue 169 - March 1987

Unclean, unclean -
the plague mentality

Has the human spirit gained ground since the prejudice that accompanied
the great epidemics and plagues of the Middle Ages? Charles Gregg concludes
that, although we may no longer be burning witches at the stake, the plague
mentality is very much a part of the contemporary reaction to AIDS.

'UNCLEAN, unclean,' the leper mumbled and rang his bell. The cowled figure tapped out a tattoo to accompany the cry that rang through the Dark Ages of Europe. Society demanded this warning, on pain of death. And both peasant and lord shrank back, ostracizing an illness they didn't understand and couldn't cure.

The mysticism, xenophobia and prejudice of the Middle Ages are well-known. They define the plague mentality. Quarantine, historically a part of this mentality, is still appealing in some quarters as a draconian way of limiting AIDS transmission. In its late fourteenth-century form it decreed isolation of the plague victims for quaranta giorni (40 days) from which our modem word comes.

During the Great Plague of London in 1665, a red cross and the words 'May God have mercy on us,' marked the houses of plague victims forcibly imprisoned. This solution was not universally admired. The courageous apothecary William Boghurst (who stayed tending the sick while others, including Charles II, fled the city) wrote, 'As soon as any house is infected all the sound people should be had out of it, and not shut up therein to be murdered.'

Quarantine could be benign. The search for scapegoats, on the other hand, was uniformly malicious. The ideal scapegoat should be: (a) different, (b) unpopular, and (c) relatively defenceless. Lepers fitted the bill nicely during the Black Death, but they were unsatisfactorily few in number. Jews, however, were everywhere, and in quantity. In the French province of Languedoc, three separate prejudices were blended ingeniously into an unholy trinity, and blamed for the Black Death. Lepers were accused of poisoning the wells (the usual allegation), after being bribed by the Jews who, in turn, were paid by the king of Grenada. This bizarre idea (and variants elsewhere) led to the slaughter of Jews throughout Europe.

Is the human spirit now sufficiently elevated that mysticism, xenophobia and prejudice are largely behind us?

There are grounds for doubt. In late July 1976, a seemingly new disease appeared in persons attending the American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Legionnaires' disease was subsequently found to be caused by a newly discovered bacterium, and to have been around, unrecognized, for 20 years. In the six months between the outbreak at the Legion convention and isolation of Legionella pneumonophila, health authorities were deluged with theories of the disease's origin varying from the Jews (yet again) to eating infected pork.

Finally, the US Labour Party put out a two-page 'Fact Sheet' on the Philadelphia disease that was wholly bereft of facts. The Labour Party concluded that the malady was swine flu (which struck the United States that same year), and that this fact was being suppressed by Senator Edward Kennedy, and Senators Schweiker, Javits and Mondale, who had opposed the swine flu programme. The outbreak of 'swine flu' in Philadelphia would expose the Senators' position 'for the genocidal policy it in fact is'.

The US Labour Party is noteworthy not just as the standard-bearer of galloping paranoia, but because it subsequently metamorphosed into the National Democratic Policy Committee. This is part of the hydra-headed organization run by right-wing extremist Lyndon H LaRouche, Jr. whose views on AIDS are the modern manifestation of the plague mentality - one that has captured a massive popular following in the US.

The LaRouchean crusade against AIDS is outlined in a Special Report of the Executive Intelligence Review1 (EIR), a weekly magazine published by LaRouche and his associates. This report, entitled 'An emergency war plan to fight AIDS and other pandemics,' was prepared by the EIA Biological Holocaust Task Force under the the direction of Warren J. Hamerman. The central thesis is that AIDS is being downplayed (and may even have been created as a biological weapon) by the US Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Soviet Union, the CIA, the Pentagon, etc., in one or another combination (like lepers, Jews, and the king of Grenada). This conspiracy involves a variety of dramatis personae including Dr Armand Hammer, Donald Regan (at the time of writing still President Reagan's chief of staff), Henry Kissinger and many others.

The motive for the cover-up by the various agencies and people, in LaRouche's view, is that AIDS will decimate the African continent (another genocidal policy), eliminating a large number of 'useless eaters' and thereby make the continent a better investment for the IMF, World Bank, etc.

The cover-up in the US, according to EIR, is necessary because Donald Regan realises that dealing effectively with the disease would destroy the Administration's budget.

The LaRoucheans believe with passionate intensity that AIDS is spread by casual contact, despite the irrefutable evidence that it is not. Part of the Special Report presents the PANIC (Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee) measure that became Proposition 64 in the November 1986 California election.

Proposition 64 required that all cases of AIDS be reported, and that carriers of the AIDS virus (i.e. those with antibodies to it) could not be teachers, employees, or students in public or private schools and could not be employed as commercial food handlers. 'The State is obliged to test and quarantine as much as required to stop the spread of the disease.'

Realistic measures to reduce the spread of AIDS through 'safe sex' (see article) are held in utter contempt by LaRouche and his associates, as they must be if they believe that AIDS is spread by casual contact. John Seale, a Harley Street consultant on venereal disease, toured the US prior to the California election giving unqualified support to Proposition 64, with the predictable result that he became a darling of the LaRouche organization.

The Centers for Disease Control, The California Medical Association, The California Public Health Association, the American Red Cross, the deans of California's distinguished schools of public health, the Governor of California and both Democratic Senator Alan Cranston and his Republican opponent, Ed Zschau, were appalled by Proposition 64. It was defeated by a two to one margin.

It is my personal belief that the human spirit has been elevated since the Middle Ages. Indeed we are no longer burning witches and the good news is that Proposition 64 was resoundingly defeated. Even so, a full one-third of the electorate voted 'yes'. The measure was carefully advertised to the gullible as a simple requirement for reporting the disease. To this the celebrated person in the street might readily assent. Few bothered, I would guess, actually to read what was being proposed.

The bad news is that Proposition 64 lives on, as does the plague mentality that gave it birth. LaRouche assures us that it will surface in subsequent elections both in the US and abroad. The cover story of the Executive Intelligence Review for 21 November 1986 was 'Britain battles to survive against AIDS, drugs, terror.' The cure for the first of these, in EIR's view, is a British Proposition 64 for which majority support was allegedly given in polls conducted by the This Week television programme, and by the Sunday newspapers The Observer, and The People.

Perhaps the worst news is that we are all frightened by powerful and mysterious forces; of which infectious disease remains high on the list. We are repelled by those obviously different from ourselves (i.e. inferior) and, while our own freedom is dear to us we are not always concerned with equal freedom for others.

Charles Gregg, a microbiologist, is scientific director of Los Alamos Diagnostics. He is the author of Plague! and The Virus of Love and other Tales of Medical Detection, both published by the University of New Mexico Press.

Folk devils and moral panics Myths about AIDS

Myth ONE

'AIDS is an African disease, and the blacks are spreading it to us.'

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The front page of the Sunday Telegraph The Damage: Xenophobic suggestions in the popular press that there should be a ban on travel by Africans to the North of that all Africans should submit blood tests for AIDS at point of immigration. In Britain this issue was seriously debated in the House of Commons in November 1986. Although the motion was defeated it is likely to surface again.

The Truth: There is some prima facie evidence to suggest that the AIDS virus may have originated in Africa. It is equally likely, however, that it bean in the US and spread to Africa from there. Tests on stored blood samples show the first cases of infection appeared in Africa and America at about the same time -1978. Although the virus is now more widespread in Africa than the US, there are as many as two million Americans who are carriers. Logically any country wishing to ban visits by African would impose a similar ban on American travellers; likewise, measures to run blood tests on African visitors would also mean blood testing of American visitors. Such measures would be enormously costly. They would be virtually impossible to police without causing a great deal of aggravation for Americans, millions of whom travel overseas each year (Africans travel far less) and would anyway be pointless. Virtually every country now has its own indigenous AIDS epidemic, with the number of cases doubling approximately every 12 months; it is too late to barricade any country against outside infection. The human resources and vast sums of money required for such measures would be better required for such measures would be better directed towards public education, research and health care in our own home-grown epidemics.

 

Myth TWO

'AIDS is a gay disease'

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The Damage: Homosexuals have been subjected to vicious and irrational discrimination - being fired from their jobs, denied insurance (whether or not they have been diagnosed as having AIDS), as well as being the subjects of 'queer bashing'. In the US a gay male nurse though to have AIS - related Complex (ARC) was dismissed because he was viewed (incorrectly) as being a risk to patients. He was later diagnosed as having neither AIDS nor ARC, but the employer refused to reinstate him. Likewise a gay man with AIDS in Jersey City, New Jersey, applying for food stamps was told by state social service personnel - acting out of unwarranted fear of contracting AIDS - to leave the office without completing an application. When he insisted on his rights the police were called to remove him. A lesbian in Oregon was refused as a blood donor on the grounds that her 'homosexuality' disqualified her from giving blood. And in San Diego the director of a blood programme vetoed a blood donor drive by a local lesbian organisation. There have been serious suggestions that all homosexuals should be interned in concentration camps - suggestions that have caused great alarm and misery amongst gays. A candidate in a Mayoral election in Houston, Texas, achieved a staggering 40 per cent of the vote on the basis of a one-issue campaign: the message of that campaign was that all 'faggots' should be shot. A more complex reaction to the 'gay plague' myth has been that heterosexuals have been lulled into a false sense of security - believing (wrongly) that they cannot contract the disease through heterosexual intercourse.

The Truth: The same mentality that likes to see AIDS as 'the fault' of blacks is also behind the misconception that AIDS is a 'gay plague'. Unfortunately the delusion that a killer disease is introduced into 'our' midst by blacks and 'faggots' holds a deep psychological appeal for many white Europeans, Americans and Australasians. The truth is different. Worldwide heterosexual intercourse is the dominant mode of transmission and, although the first cases of AIDS in the West did appear amongst homosexuals, this is probably because gay men tend to have had earlier exposure to other diseases like hepatitis that also compromise the immune system.

Because of this, gays succumbed to the new infection more quickly than 'straights' whose immune systems were generally in a better state of repair. More than five years into the epidemic, however, AIDS is now being diagnosed - and is spreading rapidly - amongst heterosexuals. The latest medical thinking is that the virus may have been present amongst heterosexuals from the very beginning but simply tool longer to express itself as the full-blown disease. Gays are thus more accurately thought of as a 'sentinel group' for the epidemic that as its originators. Lesbians, who have been discriminated against on the grounds that their 'homosexuality' puts them at risk of AIDS are not considered a 'risk group' at all by medical experts. There have been no cases of AIDS being transmitted through lesbian sex.

 

Myth THREE

'AIDS is spread by casual contact - shaking hands
with an infected person, sharing cutlery with an infected
person, coughs and sneezes, from toilet seats, etc.'

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The damage: This myth has had a profound effect on the emotional climate of society, causing a great deal of unnecessary anxiety, suspicion and unhappiness. In America, Australia and elsewhere, there have been cases of children with AIDS (usually contracted though infected blood transfusions) being banned from attending school for fear of infecting others. Where schools have allowed children with AIDS to attend, parents of other pupils have withdrawn their children. Similarly there are fears that AIDS can be contracted from sharing a swimming pool with an infected person. Even the practice of communion in church services has been tainted by the myth of casual contagion - in many churches today communicants will no longer drink from the same common chalice.

The Truth: There are only three ways in which the virus can be transmitted: first through intimate sexual contact (both heterosexual and homosexual) involving exchange of bodily fluids; secondly through direct blood-to-blood transfusions or, in the case of intravenous drug users, in the form of shared use of needles and syringes; thirdly, congenitally, to infants born of infected mothers. There has not been a single case of the AIDS virus being passed on from one infected child in a family to a previous uninfected brother or sister (and if in the confines of family life with all its rough and tumbles and shared toothbrushes and towels, the virus cannot be passed on then it is far less likely to be passed on in the school playground).

Further reassuring evidence is that despite five years of close contact between medical personnel and patients with AIDS, involving thousands of incidents in which health workers have been exposed to infected blood, mucous, etc., there has been only been one case of a health worker becoming infected. And that was a British nurse who managed to inject into one of her main veins an entire syringe-full of blood taken from an AIDS patient. The AIDS virus is easily killed - a one-in-ten solution of household bleach is sufficient - and could not survive in the chlorinated environment of swimming pools; thus there is no danger of infection in public baths. Even in unchlorinated water the quantities of virus to which any swimmer would be exposed would not be sufficient to lead to infection. There are, furthermore, no cases of AIDS being spread through coughs and sneezes and, although the virus has been isolated in minute quantities in the saliva of infected persons, there are no recorded cases of infection through kisses. More intimate and extended sexual contact involving sperm or vaginal secretions - in both of which far larger quantities of virus are present - seems to be required before infection is possible.

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