We need Ryan White to remind us…

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The American zeitgeist concerning the Covid pandemic has, from the outset, flirted with a school of morality I have long termed “Sucks to Be You” Ethics. Back in March of 2020, I wrote about how President Trump was convinced that he had Covid confined to one arriving cruise ship, and in a real-life application of “Lifeboat Ethics,” he decided to keep the uninfected aboard the ship with the infected rather than separate them from the raging infection onboard.

“Sucks to Be You” Ethics is my admittedly crass term for our ability to compartmentalize the “innocent victims” of a disease or other tragedy in order for us to absolve ourselves of our own impotence and guilt in failing to save them. Recent statements by President Biden appear to have given an official imprimatur to this attitude toward the remaining elderly and immunocompromised, still mostly making up hundreds of deaths daily, that the rest of us must “go on to live our lives.” But for these unfortunates, “Tough luck!”

Ryan White was a teenager from Indiana who was born with hemophilia, which had become a mostly controllable condition because of advances in extracting products from donated blood that were missing due to his genetic makeup. The first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) showed up during the early 1980s in two places — first, in the gay population of major cities, and second, in smaller numbers, also in the recipients of blood products like those used by hemophiliacs. The young Ryan White was infected by the latter method.

I remember well both the fear and the moral tut-tutting of the early AIDS epidemic. Initially the modes of transmission were not well known (sound familiar?) and that fear fed the still-common societal discrimination against LGTBQ people. The socially acceptable morality of the day was to “blame” people with AIDS for their own disease. The need for a scapegoat to ease our own consciences goes far back in human culture. It gives us a “moral out” for our inaction and lack of concern. This attitude pervaded the Reagan administration at the time.

But Ryan White presented a problem. AIDS was not “his fault.” Public reaction to Ryan was cleanly split between two responses. Those still living in fear and ignorance about person-to-person transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were up in arms when Ryan tried to attend school. When a lengthy administrative battle with the state education authorities finally let him come back to school, 40% of the students stayed home, and parents pulled many out of the school permanently.

Ryan’s battle to return to school garnered national attention, and the second response to Ryan was public support of Ryan personally, which led many people to a better understanding of the disease transmission and its lethal effects. By putting an “innocent” human face on the crisis, Ryan was key to the consolidation of public support for widespread AIDS education and treatment, even by those still struggling with LGBTQ issues, as well as an improved response by the U.S. health authorities.

We’ve come a long way, both in our understanding of HIV and the societal integration of a formerly outcast community. HIV-related drugs are now advertised on evening television. Ryan White was necessary for many in our society to escape our tendency to “Sucks to Be You” ethics.

The paradox of statistics in a large population is that one million Americans can die a very messy death from a disease like Covid-19 and yet the odds are that you do not know one of these people. But millions of families are acquainted with this grief.

Covid remains one of the leading causes of death, but as a society we have “declared the pandemic over.” In a way, the vaccines and boosters contributed greatly to our growing indifference. My personal odds, being fully vaccinated and boosted, of dying from Covid have been reduced by perhaps two orders of magnitude (powers of 10). But I still mask often, both for concern for my family and just out of concern for the “Ryan Whites” that remain in my community.

My Christian tolerance has admittedly been mightily tried by the medical quacks and con men selling pseudoscientific “preventions and cures,” and especially by the politicians who have enabled them. It is hard for me personally to cry tears for the vaccine denier who is surprised by death from Covid. But I do know many immunocompromised people who remain at high risk, as well as some unfortunate dupes of bad politicians who put themselves at risk daily.

Perhaps we need a new Ryan White — a name and a face to shame our societal tendency to stop caring when deaths drop below some mysteriously tolerable threshold.

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