Blood on their hands
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
The above was written by Isaac Asimov in 1978. Five years later, in 1983 he would undergo a bypass surgery. The older and/or more attentive of you might see where this is going. Asimov died in 1992. It would be ten years before his family would make public that he had died of AIDS. Not only did HIV rob us of one of the greatest writers of the 1900s, but it was ten years before his family felt that they might be safe from the stigma attached to the disease. I find the above quote fascinating and haunting because of how pertinent it seems to the manner of Mr. Asimov’s death. He, and so many many others, quite simply did not have to die. They died because simple minded people could not expand their thinking into areas that they didn’t want to.
Infections from tainted blood supply are an often overlooked subset of HIV infections. Why? Certainly not for any good reason, this information could only help understand the current crisis. I feel that in all likelihood society is so embarrassed by how horribly it handled the early days of the HIV epidemic that they try to pretend it never happened. And almost nothing from those days is more starkly horrific than the way we handled the blood supply.
See, blood is more than just a nutrient delivery system, it’s a very lucrative industry. Put yourself in the shoes of an executive of that industry circa 1983. So there is this “gay cancer” going around and everyone is up in arms about it, well…everyone except the current presidential administration which is just ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. Who knows how you feel about it? Maybe you think that it is a tragedy, maybe you think that it is God’s judgement. Regardless, you get called into a meeting with some guys down at the CDC in January 1983. All of a sudden you are introduced to a new idea: gay cancer might be transmittable by blood. Moreover the CDC actually wants you and your company to take some minimum of responsibility. The horror.
If you were to actually screen your blood it could cost as much as 5 million (1983) US dollars! And how come if this is true, only expert virologists at the CDC know it? Aren’t all those guys just alarmists elites anyway? And hey, they only have clear evidence that three people have contracted the disease from tainted blood so far. That whole thing about 10% of all haemophiliacs being infected by transfusion is rubbish, isn’t it? And it isn’t like a public outcry is likely. Moreover, what gives big government the right to poke its nose into your business anyway? They’re the bad guys here. The government needs to get the CDC under control. So what if about 5% of diagnosed AIDS sufferers had donated blood within the past year, there just is too much of a financial stake for you to bother listening, to bother believing, or to even bother imagining that these experts might be right.
In the meantime, Isaac Asimov would undergo bypass surgery and be supplied blood from a donor with AIDS. That donor had given that blood in good faith, with the intent of saving a life, but the pathogen hiding within would instead claim another victim. And a host more would follow in the wake.
The status quo is often assumed to be good. The first response to troubling information that would change it is generally disbelief. And we have seen this before and will see it again on a grand scale. Sometimes that disbelief leads to inconvenience, sometimes that disbelief leads to no consequence, this time it led to an ever escalating body count. This time it was just one more step in letting a horrifying pathogen rage out of control. And all but for the sake of a little thinking about what could be. All for the sake of a little open-mindedness, a little evidence based speculation and extrapolation on the future, the blood banks voted to willingly go on acting as a vector for HIV. The irony that these institutions earned their keep by saving lives is not lost on me.
At the end of the meeting, CDC’s Jeffrey Koplan, who was chairing it, began proposing consensus recommendations. Bruce Voeller suggested a resolution opposed to deferral of high-risk donors; the proposal was defeated soundly on a voice vote. Other proposals met similar fates or were modified so extensively that they were rendered meaningless. The meeting adjourned with no recommendation or agreed-upon course of action. Things would simply go on as they were, as if nothing was happening.
-Randy Shilts; “And the Band Played On”
Anyone who seriously has to ask: “How much will it cost me not to kill people? Is it worth it?” Fuck you. I know some of those blood bank execs that attended that meeting are still alive and probably still working today. I just hope they realize the extent of the blood on their hands. And I hope all of you realize just how important the questioning wonder of speculative fiction is if we are to be saved at all.
Sources & Further Reading
- And the Band Played On Randy Shilts
- Seriously, if you don’t read pretty much any Asimov that you can get your hands on, start.
- Not directly related, but there was a recent interesting pictorial history of the epidemic by Life.