As citizens with different background and ideologies, we can all disagree on President Obama’s policies. What we can’t disagree on, however, is that, by hugging a nurse who’d been cured of Ebola, President Obama took an important step toward lessening the stigma of the disease.
As Slate’s Laura Helmuth notes, whereas Obama took a courageous step, former President Reagan took the coward’s way out when he refused to even talk about AIDS.
Last week President Obama hugged Nina Pham, one of two nurses who contracted Ebola from Thomas Duncan before he dιed in a Dallas hospital. But when Reagan was president, even as fears about the disease surpassed common sense, Reagan kept quiet, refusing to use his bully pulpit to dispel myths about the disease.
Instead of calming all the fear-mongering, Reagan ignored the disease and allowed the misinformation to get out of hand. Although scientists were well aware of how the disease was transmitted, fear mongers spread rumors that stigmatized those with the disease, but Reagan refused to step in and take a leadership role in dispelling the dangerous lies.
Buzzfeed provided a transcript of a press briefing from 1982 that highlights the cynical and uncaring posture Reagan’s White House took toward AIDS:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
As West Africans continue to confront bias over Ebola, maybe Obama’s hug will make things slightly better for them. Either way, this president’s reaction is much braver and compassionate than Ronald Reagan’s.