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About Those “Pre-existing Conditions”

May 9th, 2020 by dk

There is still a whole lot we don’t know about this novel coronavirus and the havoc it’s wreaking on the world. But we do know a few important things about COVID-19 that warrant our immediate attention — well, almost immediate. First, let’s review some recent history.

The last time we witnessed rampant deaths from a microscopic foe, it was AIDS. But it wasn’t always AIDS. In 1981, the disease was called GRID — “gay-related immune deficiency.” The Center for Disease Control then called it “the 4H disease,” because it targeted homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. 

The epidemic was dismissed by large swaths of America as a gay disease. Some saw the devastation as retribution for what they considered unacceptable lifestyle choices. Thankfully, those moral judgements did not hinder the scientific work. 

In September, 1982, CDC settled on the term AIDS — “acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” The precursor to AIDS was not identified until 1983 — Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Once scientists could separate the virus (HIV) from the disease (AIDS), strategies to keep them apart began. Today, an HIV-positive person can lead a long and healthy life.

How can lessons learned in the 1980s help us today? We’re facing a “good news, bad news” scenario. Good news: it didn’t take scientists and medical professionals over two years to begin identifying precursors to COVID-19. The bad news is those precursors are correlated to lifestyle choices that society has not marginalized. AIDS struck “them.” COVID-19 targets “us.”

As of this week, Oregon has suffered 101 deaths attributed to COVID-19. One hundred — all but one — victims had identified pre-existing conditions. Italy’s National Health Institute previously analyzed that nation’s fatalities and determined that less than one percent of its victims had no serious chronic health conditions.

Pre-existing conditions are being exploited by the virus is ways that should terrify us.

Those with lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or hypertension are less likely to recover when COVID-19 strikes. Health officials have added old age to that list, but age itself may not be a factor, apart from this list of chronic conditions. More factors may be added to this list, but the point is already clear.

COVID-19 is attacking our lifestyle choices.

Charles Eisenstein summarized our dilemma this way: “Americans, beset by obesity, diabetes, and other chronic ailments, are at least as vulnerable as Italians. Should we blame the virus then (which kills few otherwise healthy people), or shall we blame underlying poor health? … Millions of people in the modern world are in a precarious state of health, just waiting for something that would normally be trivial to send them over the edge.”

Our society’s inequities are being laid bare. Healthy lifestyle choices come more easily for many. It’s tougher when you live in a food desert, playgrounds are not safe, and you need two jobs to pay the rent.

Once scientists understood that HIV causes AIDS, they could chemically block that progression. We don’t have a similar strategy yet. Until we do, COVID-19 will hunt for smokers, drinkers, snackers, hurriers, and worriers.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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