For David France, the chaos surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is depressingly familiar.
When he observes the disaster playing out in New York and other parts of the U.S., the journalist and filmmaker behind the 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague” is reminded of the bureaucratic incompetence and overwhelmed healthcare system that led to critical failures in the country’s response to AIDS. It’s a crisis that will lead to suffering and death, and one that France thinks could fundamentally alter the fabric of American life. But it’s also a challenge that’s inspiring countless acts of heroism and generosity similar to the kind of advocacy highlighted by “How to Survive a Plague.”
France, who directed the upcoming HBO documentary “Welcome to Chechnya,” is currently in the early stages of a new project that will highlight coronavirus activism. He spoke with Variety about the lessons from the AIDS epidemic and why he’s worried about America’s future.
Do you see parallels between how the federal government is responding to coronavirus and how it handled the AIDS epidemic?
Some of it feels familiar. You have the incompetence of government and the stripped down apparatus of governance, which was true of Reagan, who made a big effort to downsize government. Trump did the same thing, and that means that we weren’t able to muster the kind of expertise that we needed when this crisis worsened. So that’s depressingly familiar. We are suffering from a 40-year Republican campaign against the idea of government.
One key difference is that there isn’t the same kind of stigma associate with having COVID-19. Reagan was slow to act because there was a stigma associated with AIDS. Coronavirus is not playing in small circles. Everyone was susceptible to HIV, but it grabbed hold of a really despised population. This thing is a tidal wave. This time, the reason is incompetence and incompetence alone.
You live in New York, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus in this country. What’s it like to be there right now?
It feels a lot like it did after 9/11. People are walking around in a daze. The silence of the city is eerie. Then there’s the knowledge that everybody you see when you go out is thinking about the same things you’re thinking about. We’re all weighing the risks and dangers of exposure to these pathogens.
New Yorkers are uniquely resilient. New York is going to survive this. I don’t know if America is going to survive this. That’s what I’m worried about.
Why do you think America is at risk?
America had been the most stable and the strongest institutional democracy that the world has ever known. Now we’re seeing that the institutional part of our democracy is crumbling. Will we emerge from this as the leading voice of liberalism on the world stage? Will we still have the paramount influence that has been with us since World War II? Already you’re seeing Russia and China rush in to fill that void.
Many people who survived the AIDS epidemic are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus, which has a higher mortality rate for people with preexisting conditions. Is that a concern for you?
It’s certainly a concern. So many of them have been deep in isolation since the early reports of the COVID-19 pandemic broke, just to protect themselves. I’m sure our community will be hit hard.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was a key figure in “How to Survive a Plague.” He’s playing a central role in guiding the country’s response to coronavirus. How effective was he during the AIDS crisis?
It’s not just Dr. Fauci. [White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator] Deborah Birx is also an AIDS veteran. They’re bringing a deep fund of lessons they learned about how to manage a scarcity of medication and how to handle an over-strained supply chain when things get worse. They’re once again hitting up against a federal government that is in disarray, just as they were during AIDS.
These guys, like Tony Fauci, had to be converted into allies of the gay community. He did not recognize the kind of urgency that the situation warranted. He needed a push from activists, but ultimately they pushed each other and created a real bond that was necessary.
Are there lessons from the activism that we saw spring up around the AIDS epidemic that could be applied to the coronavirus crisis?
Even when they feel powerless, people can find and harness power and use it to their advantage. We need to make sure that our response is nimble and humane and urgent. Just as with the AIDS plague, there is no true leadership in the country for charting a path through this. It’s every American for herself or himself. We have already seen activism develop around finding and acquiring ventilators. Private citizens are responding to the shortage of masks. In New York, ordinary people are searching the globe for needed supplies. Many of them are people who were featured in ‘How to Survive a Plague.’
I don’t know that I can say yet. You can say I’m developing a project that will chronicle these actions.
How did you feel when you first starting reading the reports out of China about coronavirus?
My reaction was terror. But that was how I responded when HIV first started washing through New York. Eventually I found ways to engage, but initially I was frozen in terror. I think that’s what a lot of people are feeling now. They’re stuck at home, staring out the window and wondering when it’s coming for them. Back then, it felt like AIDS would claim all gay men. Today, New York feels the same. We’re all just waiting for our time.