My spotty knowledge was that AIDS started in the 80s, mostly infecting gay men, and was a death sentence. Then medical companies alighted on cures, and while AIDS still exists to a small degree in the U.S., it is no longer a crisis.
How simplistic I now know that explanation to be. I got the first part right--and indeed the epicenter of the epidemic was in New York City. However, then-mayor Ed Koch refused to acknowledge that anything was happening and President Reagan was also silent on this public health crisis that was killing people in 6 months to 2 years after they were infected. LGBTQ people in NYC formed Act Up, the most effective model of grassroots activism I have ever heard of. (Trailer of film below.)
Meetings occurred regularly at the NYC Gay and Lesbian Community Center and people like playwright Larry Kramer, journalist Ann Northrup, banker Peter Staley and many many more would come together and figure out how to demand that the FDA, the NIH and the federal government at large stop dragging its feet on testing life-saving drugs. The protests were big and bold and it took thousands of people dying and thousands of arrests for these institutions (which exist to supposedly support and protect its tax-paying citizens) to start getting the message that their strategy of ignoring these LGBTQ people because they were a marginalized population was not going to work.
But it still took nine years of activism before the government developed and released the needed drugs. Thousands of people whose lives could have been extended 20 to 50 years instead died waiting.
The most powerful scene of the film is a protest in Washington D.C. The first AIDS quilt had been laid out, and mourners and protesters then marched on the White House. Some of them brought the ashes of their loved ones who had died from AIDS. They poured the bones shards and dust onto the White House lawn--all that was left of these people taken from them. They wanted the President to know that their blood was on his hands. The whole theater was sobbing.
"How to Survive a Plague" teaches history but also helps inspire urgency. AIDS is nowhere near from being over. 50,000 people are still infected each year in the United States. Worldwide, there were 2.7 million people infected with AIDS in 2010. Over 34 million people currently live with AIDS, a majority of whom do not have the drugs that can significantly improve and lengthen their lives. We cannot become complacent.
Director David France spoke and answered questions after the film screening in NYC I attended, and he and his colleagues on the stage reiterated that fact, encouraging audience members to join an ACT UP meet-up group and continue the struggle. It's the best way we can honor the incredible AIDS activist work that has come before us.