Abetting the AIDS Crisis | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Abetting the AIDS Crisis 

Lonnie Edwards, Survivor of the Year; Douglas Huff, Hysterical Legislator of the Year

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On December 1, in a City Hall press conference conveniently scheduled to precede by one week his formal reelection-campaign declaration, Chicago's acting mayor Eugene Sawyer introduced a glossy new AIDS education campaign. Joining Sawyer to handle specific questions on the city's response to AIDS was Lonnie Edwards, MD, MPA, commissioner of the city's Department of Health. Edwards displayed a series of slickly produced posters to be used as billboards and newspaper ads. The primary targets of the ads were black and Latino heterosexuals--intravenous drug users of both sexes and female sexual partners of IV-drug-using men. Edwards assured reporters that creating the ads and placing them around the city would be accomplished at "practically no cost"--and then dodged specifics about how much the effort would cost.

A week later, Chicago's gay newspaper Windy City Times reported that the Health Department had reneged on a commitment to distribute $600,000 to community-based agencies providing direct services to black and Latino AIDS patients. In August, Commissioner Edwards had promised that "approximately $600,000 will be allocated from federal and corporate sources"; the Windy City Times article revealed that only about $332,000 was available, and that that money would go to education at the expense of patient-support services. A prepared statement from Edwards's press spokesman acknowledged that the Health Department did not obtain the funding it had planned on and that grant requests from community-based organizations "far exceeded the department's expectations."

The lack of planning and the emphasis on pseudostyle over serious substance displayed in these developments make them a fitting year-end comment on the issue of AIDS and how it has been handled by Chicago's Health Department under Lonnie Edwards. In his nearly five-year tenure as Chicago's top public health official, Edwards has come to personify the concept of crisis mismanagement. Under his stewardship, the city has failed to develop a comprehensive plan for prevention, education, and patient care in response to the AIDS epidemic. Funding has generally been grudging and erratic; scarce federal moneys have frequently gone undistributed while AIDS agencies went begging; good personnel have been driven away from the department by inefficiency and politicization. And in the area of committed, courageous, communicative leadership--an area in which U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Indiana state health commissioner Woodrow Myers, to name two men, have set a laudably high standard--Edwards has failed miserably.

This failure led in 1987 to an all-out campaign to have Edwards removed from office. The campaign, waged in the public media and behind the scenes with staff in the administration of Mayor Harold Washington, was apparently successful: in August of 1987, Edwards announced he was resigning for "personal" reasons. AIDS activists breathed a sigh of relief--and gritted their teeth to endure the unusually long period between the announcement and the date Edwards's resignation was to take effect, March 1, 1988.

Then a health crisis of a different nature intervened: Harold Washington died of a heart attack. A little more than a month later, the administration of acting mayor Eugene Sawyer announced that Edwards would be staying on after all.

The decision to retain Edwards was announced on January 7 of this year. Dr. Linda Murray, the respected acting head of public health for the Health Department, defended the move by saying (according to a quote in the Chicago Sun-Times) that Edwards would bring "leadership and continuity" to the Sawyer administration.

Five months later, Murray was out--fired by Edwards after clashing with him over several significant issues. Murray claimed--and the city did not convincingly deny--that she had disagreed with Edwards about the handling of the city's much-criticized food-inspection program, and about a consulting contract tendered by Edwards to K.T. Reddi. (Reddi, Murray's predecessor as public health chief, had been forced out of his job amid criticism of his handling of AIDS; the official reason given for his firing was that he had violated the city's rule that public employees must live in the city.) Also at issue, according to Murray, was pressure on Health Department personnel to buy and sell tickets to a Sawyer fund-raiser.

Two days after Murray's firing, five key Health Department figures quit in protest; among them were the department's two top AIDS-office directors, Melanie Sovine and Dr. Arthur Brewer.

The issue of politicization was not a new one in the Health Department, which had long been considered a patronage dumping ground. Harold Washington brought in new city executives with a mandate to reform such practices; Edwards was clearly out of step with Washington's administration.

Political concerns also affected the city's handling of AIDS in another way. Repeatedly, say credible former insiders, the issue of how to address AIDS was hampered by concern about the presumed negative ramifications of the Washington administration's acting aggressively on what was seen as a "gay" health issue. Compounding this political oversensitivity was a sometimes startling lack of real sensitivity to the situation. AIDS activists still remember the city's first "AIDS Awareness Month" in April 1984, in which the city placed posters on CTA buses. The posters were dominated by a large, bold headline reading "AlDS"--under which was contact information printed in type so small that anyone who wanted to read it would have to walk over to the poster and look right at it, something a person worried about being tagged as gay would be most unlikely to do.

Four and a half years later--with guidance from the ad agency DDB Needham--the city seems to have learned from that mistake, at least. The new posters are simple, almost elegant, and easily readable. But they persist in avoiding the reality that AIDS is of special concern to gay men. On several, a picture of an unopened condom appears, accompanied by such slogans as "Health Coverage," "Care Package," and "Self Defense." These ads presumably address gay men as well as straight men, but by default rather than by design. Other ads stress the risk of hypodermic needles shared by IV-drug users and emphasize to women their responsibility for insisting on safe (condom-protected) sexual intercourse. One ad shows a thoughtful-looking woman next to the headline, "Seven years is a long time to worry about a one-night stand." Other posters, held in reserve for later consideration, show a pretty woman lying in bed, her naked boyfriend lying asleep in her arms, "Risk your heart, not your life," the headline says.

None of the ads unveiled at the December press conference explicitly addresses the need for homosexual men to protect themselves and their same-sex partners. Edwards himself totally neglected the threat of AIDS to gay men in his press conference until pressed for a specific comment by this writer. His answer--"We are not denying the fact that a large number of AIDS cases are in homosexual men, but a sizable number are drug users, and that would be the way it would be introduced into the heterosexual community"--fully lived up to the pattern of evasive vagueness he has established during his term as health commissioner.

Edwards's supporters have tried to protect him by repeatedly tagging his critics as racists, "just" gays, or both. Yet in minority communities, gay men continue to be the most at-risk population--and that's not likely to get better as long as the Health Department downplays black and Latino gay men and the threat they face.

As it happens, 1988 was the year when AIDS cases began to surge dramatically here. Except for February, when 42 new cases were reported, the local monthly AIDS caseload never dipped below 50--a major increase over previous years. January, March, May, and June recorded more than 70 cases each, and July saw a record 84 cases reported. City statistics cross-referencing racial and risk groups show that of the 571 blacks diagnosed with AIDS here since 1980, 436--76 percent--were gay or bisexual (including 5 percent who also reported IV-drug usage); of 206 Latino AIDS cases, 108 were in gay or bisexual men; of 921 whites with AIDS, 839 were gay or bisexual. And of the total 1,709 people diagnosed with AIDS in Chicago since the epidemic began, 942 have died.

Lonnie Edwards has survived. But any candidate running for mayor now would be a fool not to make our health commissioner the campaign issue he deserves to be. --Albert Williams

Douglas Huff, Hysterical Legislator of the Year

In case you missed it--and most people did--we'd like to share with you a classic act of irresponsibility in the face of adversity. On July 11, while under indictment for income tax evasion, the late state representative Douglas Huff held a news conference to alert reporters to heretofore ignored documents proving an international conspiracy that created and then propagated the AIDS virus.

Citing a number of books and articles published in 142 countries, Huff implicated the National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization, and the governments of the United States, South Africa, and Israel. The west-side legislator claimed that "the AIDS virus is a man-made genetically engineered virus that was deliberately introduced into select populations as a part of a secret germ-warfare experiment" and that "a massive cover-up by the scientific establishment and the government has kept this information from the American public."

Huff contended that in the late 1970s, a group of U.S. scientists led by a Jewish defector from the Soviet bloc "created [AIDS] genetically and then tested it on gay white male homosexuals" after failing to prove that viruses caused cancer. He said "gay white male homosexuals" were chosen in a homophobic response to burgeoning gay political power.

He went on to say that the World Health Organization introduced AIDS to Africa to test levels of immunity. Now, he said, AIDS is being used as "an ethnic weapon . . . designed to attack the DNA structure of nonwhite people" by agents of the Israeli and South African governments.

Huff's charges were nothing new to people familiar with AIDS hysteria, and the few reporters who covered the press conference had the good sense to ignore them. It was the timing of his rant that we found particularly disturbing.

Huff spewed forth just as the city's blacks and Jews were beginning to forget the wounds inflicted by Steve Cokely. Additionally, Huff gave his performance just weeks before he was to plead guilty to charges of tax evasion.

Chicagoans have never demanded much intellect from their politicians, and Doug Huff certainly didn't let us down in that regard. But we do expect them to have enough grace to go down quietly, without throwing irresponsible punches.

Doug Huff died from a stroke on September 23, two weeks after receiving a four-year prison sentence for tax evasion. We can only assume he hasn't been admitted to that great public health organization in the sky.

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