In the early 1980s, when AIDS had just been identified by the medical community and the public first became aware of it, an atmosphere of near hysteria (this is only a slight exaggeration) seemed to exist among many people, partly generated by the media but also as a typical reaction...
In the early 1980s, when AIDS had just been identified by the medical community and the public first became aware of it, an atmosphere of near hysteria (this is only a slight exaggeration) seemed to exist among many people, partly generated by the media but also as a typical reaction to the appearance of any serious communicable disease, especially one that is sexually transmitted. A tendency still exists in the human mind to see such illnesses within a kind of moral framework in which they are interpreted as punishment for one's "transgressions," or whatever judgmental term may be used for behavior not conforming to society's code. In the late 1400s and early 1500s, syphilis was similarly viewed through a moral prism when it first appeared in Europe: the term coined for the illness was taken from the character in a literary work, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Syphilis, or, the French Disease), who is struck down by the condition as punishment for an act of impiety.
With AIDS, the situation was worse in terms of its perception because the illness was first found primarily in gay men. In much of the public consciousness at that time (and unfortunately often still today, nearly forty years later), any subject connected with homosexuality was considered disreputable and untouchable. Though it was quickly found that non-gay people, especially hemophiliacs and others who had received contaminated blood transfusions and blood products, were also getting the disease, AIDS was still associated in the lay mindset primarily with sexual behavior that many still considered improper and immoral.
These typical reactions and attitudes were partly responsible for the situation, described in And the Band Played On, in which Congress would not vote to allocate sufficient funding to the CDC for research on AIDS. The president at the time, Ronald Reagan, appears to have been willfully oblivious of the scope of the epidemic until his friend and fellow actor Rock Hudson revealed that he was suffering from AIDS.
Though And the Band Played On correctly points out that the media inadequately covered stories about the disease because it mostly affected gay men, it's also true that the coverage that did exist tended to be sensationalistic and apparently geared to frighten the general public about a "gay plague," reinforcing the tendency to see the disease as something unmentionable in polite society. This merely reinforced the anti-gay attitude of many people who continued, at least implicitly, to see the disease in moral, judgmental terms instead of as a medical condition that needed to be researched and treated, like any other illness.