LIFE IN WARTIME
By Doug Ireland
POZ Magazine January 2002
"Quarantine" in the headlines? AIDS activists as "terrorists"? Doug Ireland
fears for the future when everything old is new.
In the wake of the once and future bioterrorism scare, the Bush
administration is pushing state legislatures to adopt a draconian new
quarantine law that is not only bad public health policy but contains a
potentially serious threat to HIVers. Drafted at the White House's demand by
the CDC, the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act permits forced
vaccinations and quarantines of people exposed to infectious diseases - for
example, in a terrorist attack with the highly contagious smallpox virus -
and authorize police to restrain residents from leaving contaminated areas.
These and other measures in the law could, if implemented, move America well
down the road to a public-health "police" state. Furthermore, just as AIDS
advocates have long argued that mandatory testing and treatments, the model
quarantine law is likely to foster panic and flight, spreading deadly germs
In Massachusetts, GO P Gov. Jane Swift has introduced a version of the law
that mandates not only the detention of infected people but the confiscation
of their property and the seizure of hospitals. "History shows that
(quarantining) is littered with violence, questionable imprisonment and mob
panic," The Boston Globe reported in a page-one investigation. "As late as
the turn of the century, Boston 'virus squads' beat and forcibly vaccinated
homeless people" in a smallpox epidemic. And for those who would argue that
the end justifies the means, The Globe pointed out that "little proof exists
that the drastic measures worked to stop disease spread." The proposed law
"treats American citizens as if they are the enemy," argues George Annas, MD,
chair if the Boston University School of Public Health's Health Law
Department, who led 10 New England legal scholars in opposing it.
In the Bush-backed model - versions of which are working their way through
legislatures in California and elsewhere - quarantine is authorized for "any
infectious disease that can be transmitted from person to person." That, of
course, includes HIV.
In San Francisco two controversial PWA activists who protested the quarantine
(among much else) have been arrested as "terrorists." At press time, Michael
Petrelis and David Pasquarelli were in jail on $500,000 bail each, charged
with making harassing phone calls - allegedly including a bomb threat - to
San Francisco Chronicle editors and reporters. (Both men vigorously deny
making bomb threats.) The indictment accuses them of stalking, terrorist
threats and conspiracy on 27 counts - half are felonies - carrying a
potential total criminal penalty of 78 years in prison.
Petrelis is a sometimes-useful gadfly whose tactics can range from the silly
to the offensive to the counterproductive (for his anti-gay collaboration
with Sen. Jesse Helms, see "Sex Pistols," page 18); ACT UP/San Francisco's
Pasquarelli is the HIV Denialist against whom restraining orders have been
issued on behalf of individuals at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Project
Inform and the city health department. Now, one can object to both Petrelis'
and Pasquarelli's politics and their actions but still find what's being done
to them disturbing: Their prohibitively high bail amounts to preventive
detention. Those who have no sympathy for these two might recall the case of
ACT UP/Philadelphia Kate Sorenson, who was arrested in protests at the 2000
Republican national Convention, held on $1 million bail and tried - and
eventually acquitted - on felony charges. Or the takeover of
GlaxoSmithKlien's offices last February by New York ACTUPers whose felony
charges are still pending.
The punishing of civil - or even uncivil - disobedience with felony charges,
instead of the usual misdemeanors, constitutes an attempt to repress
political dissent. And while you may find late-night obscene phone calls, as
I do, repugnantly puerile, San Francisco DA Terrence Hallinan's accusations
of "terrorism" against Petrelis and Pasquarelli in the post-September 11
hysteria are political pandering to his hometown newspaper. And it makes it
difficult for the duo to get a fair trial.
Public opinion polls show the country is overwhelmingly in favor of curbs on
our civil liberties like those adopted by the Bush administration. In the
'80s, calls for quarantine of PWA's were commonplace. Jeffrey Klausner, MD,
San Francisco's director of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention and
Control, recently suggested to the Washington Monthly that it was time to
discuss quarantine for barebackers accused of infecting multiple sex
partners. No major AIDS or gay organization has yet spoken out about the
threat to HIVers in the Bush-backed quarantine proposal or Klausner's
off-hand remark - or, for that matter, the detention of two AIDS activists
they revile. This is a shame. For it is by one's willingness to oppose the
mistreatment of those whose politics and actions one rejects that one's own
principles and integrity are measured.