James Hamblin: What were your first thoughts when stories of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, started popping up in January?
Gonsalves: I was thinking, Okay, there’s not a lot of data yet. Don’t panic. Nobody expects a worldwide pandemic. What’s interesting is that a lot of the old AIDS activists have started rising up. There’s a COVID-19 working group in New York City, which has a lot of the activists who were involved in the early AIDS response. A lot of the old physicians and scientists from that time too. This happened during Ebola in 2014 and 2015 too, around the health-care-worker quarantines in the U.S. The AIDS activists were protesting outside of Bellevue on behalf of the doctors who were being quarantined.
Hamblin: I remember at that point you were worried about it from a human-rights perspective, that the government shouldn’t be forcing people into quarantine.
Gonsalves: Yes, it was very different, mostly because we didn’t have an Ebola epidemic in the United States. Now, in the context of COVID-19, we need to be thinking about testing, contact tracing, and isolation. But I’ve never been in a situation before where quarantine made sense. Even in the AIDS epidemic, it didn’t make sense.
Hamblin: With the Ebola quarantines, there were, if I recall correctly, guards outside of people’s houses. This was enforced.
Gonsalves: People were very spooked by [Ebola] in a way that they’re not now, with a real virus in their midst. There was much more paranoid fearmongering in New Haven around Ebola when there was no Ebola to be found within 6,000 miles.
Wells: Why do you think that is?
Gonsalves: I think the Ebola fear is tied to a deep racism about Africa. There’s a racist epistemology built into viruses and disease from Africa.
Wells: We’ve seen some racism tied to coronavirus as well.
Gonsalves: Yes, with China. People react to threats in different ways. We have people who are rising to the challenge, whether they’re health-care workers or people at the Stop & Shop who are going into work every day, putting themselves on the front lines in another way. There’s a lot of heroic stuff happening. At the same time, there’s really bizarre things, like the takeover of the Michigan state capitol yesterday. But it is amazing how many people have been social distancing without a threat that they can see in front of them. They just know that it’s something they have to do.
Wells: About that question from our listener: I think the listener was concerned about stigmatization and criminalization of COVID-19. And there are a couple of examples that we’ve seen. Because COVID-19 is so widespread, it’s different [from previous infectious diseases]. But there are a couple of examples of criminalization we’ve seen. The Department of Justice has declared that federal anti-terrorism laws can be used to prosecute anyone who threatens or attempts to spread the coronavirus. New Jersey criminal laws have been used to charge a man who allegedly threatened and then coughed on a grocery-store clerk in Pennsylvania. A woman who is not believed to have the coronavirus is facing charges for purposefully coughing on bread. What do you think about that? Is there a connection [to the HIV epidemic] in your mind, or no?