COVID-19 Epidemics and Gender HIV Social activism United States

Communicating disease: Keith Haring’s AIDS paintings as a means for social activism

Picture taken by the author at a recent Keith Haring exhibition at the Bozar in Brussels (2019-2020)

by Viola Ziehaus, MA

The current crisis triggered by the COVID-19-pandemic can be described as many things, including as a giant magnifying glass that sheds light on the injustices and the systematic political and social malfunctions of the world. For many of us, it might be the first time experiencing such a pandemic. Nevertheless, it is not the first time in history that a health crisis unleashes profound changes that not only affect the sanitary domain, but also economics, politics and, more broadly, development itself by generating fears, inequalities, but also a sense of hope for a better world. There are different ways in which individuals deal with the threat posed by a disease, including art, an activity that constitutes a pivotal component of the social world. This blog post focuses on how the US-American artist Keith Haring used art as a means of social activism in order to raise awareness about AIDS and help people to make sense of the disease in emotional and cognitive terms.

Why art matters in times of crisis

Artists have always played a crucial role in communicating the injustices of the world, nurturing hopes through their work, acting as spokespersons for those who do not have the means or the power to raise their voices and being a motor of social activism. Especially in times of crisis, art has proven itself to be a tool that allows mankind to process experiences, to find a source of strength and comfort, to feel connected to a holistic experience, to understand each other on a deeper level and to see ourselves within a larger society. While it could never save lives in the way that science may be able to, art can nevertheless deliver a strong message – as American artists Keith Haring once said, “Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.”

When AIDS hit the world

This ideology of delivering a message through art was particularly prevalent during the AIDS pandemic that had its outbreak in the early 1980s. The illness is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that is transmitted through bodily fluids and that attacks the body’s immune system. According to the World Health Organization, HIV is still one of the world’s most serious public health challenges. For the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus originated in Central Africa and may have jumped from chimpanzees to humans in the late 1800s. At that time, it spread slowly across Africa and into other parts of the world, and eventually also arrived in the United States around 1970, even if it did not come to the public’s attention until the early 1980s. In that decade, one American city was hit especially hard by the crisis: New York City.

There‘s a new guy in town

The AIDS pandemic led many artists and activists in New York City to identify new forms of supporting social causes by using art as a mean of resistance. Among those artists was Keith Haring, an openly gay advocate for safe sex. Haring grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1978 where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and dived into the art and social scene of the East Village. There he found an alternative art community outside of galleries and museums. He started experimenting with chalk graffiti over unused advertising spaces in subway stations. Little did he know that with a piece of chalk and a combination of pop art and graffiti, he was setting the scene to changing the world. Throughout his career, Haring devoted his time to public works that often-carried powerful social messages. Especially during the last years of his life, Haring generated activism and awareness about AIDS during a time where little was known about a virus that not only was a taboo topic, but particularly affected the gay community.

A social construction of reality

In his work, Haring created attention and awareness of HIV and AIDS by breaking with taboos and using explicit sexual iconography to inspire the general public for a more open conversation about the virus and its prevention. He promoted safe sex campaigns and constructed a social reality, in which he portrayed the virus not as a biological entity, but as an enemy – the devil of the people. Since the pioneer work of sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann[1], scholars have studied how social reality is constructed in intersubjective exchanges and interactions. As a constitutive domain of the public sphere of a society – including the global –, art is a major field for the construction of reality. By representing AIDS though black shapes that somehow resemble a devil with horns, Haring loaded the disease with specific negative connotations, which help raise awareness about the dangers it poses to human beings. Even if this was not Haring’s only approach to deal with the disease from an artistic perspective, it showcases clearly how he intended to provoke discussions about AIDS by depicting the disease itself as a threat to humanity and by employing resources that are easily linked by the audience as evil.

Why Keith Haring’s work still matters

Haring was diagnosed HIV positive in 1988 and died of AIDS related complications in 1990 at the young age of 31. But his art has never been forgotten. Even though he might be dead for more than three decades, his work keeps inspiring people, organizations and movements all over the world. If he were still alive, public spaces would probably already be painted with coronavirus-images, depicting it as an “evil enemy” or a “social monster“, bringing it to life by means of representations that are beyond the scientific domain to educate people about the illness rather than live in fear of it. Just like Haring created a sort of visual identity for AIDS, he would have probably also created one for the coronavirus, accompanied by words like “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death”[2] in order to enact social change and bring conversations into the mainstream. There is no better way to summarize Keith Haring’s intention than with his own words: “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”

[1] Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

[2] Whitney Museum of American Art:, accessed 24 January 2021.

General References:

HERO Magazine. 12.08.2020

Dazed Digital. 29.06.2017

The Guardian. 02.06.2019.

Deutsche Welle. 21.08.2020

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, accessed 23 January 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 23 January 2021

New York City AIDS Memorial, accessed 24 January 2021

The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed 24 January 2021!/about-haring/bio

Moreno Barreneche, S. “From a Biological Entity to a Social Monster. A Semiotic Construction of the Coronavirus During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Revista di Sociologia del Territorio, Turismo, Tecnologia 7, no. 1 (2020)

Class Epidemics and Gender Racism Vulnerability

The virus comes by car: the social construction of asymptomatic carriers

By Pamela Kultscher, BA

An international pandemic bears enormous challenges for all governments and health officials. One of those challenges is not to give way to the temptation to name scapegoats within the population, especially if a disease is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, i.e. people with no symptoms but enough pathogen count to transmit the disease. On December 3rd, 2020, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz got caught in this communication trap when he put the blame for the rising COVID-19 infections in his country since the summer on the population with roots in Turkey and the Balkans. His reasoning was that they had travelled to their countries of origin for the summer holidays and therefore had imported infections to a supposedly healthy and virus-free Austria. By doing so, Kurz labelled people with migration background as others and constructed the image of a disproportionate number of infections tied to this population group.

There’s something about Mary: a historical perspective

Looking back onto the history of pandemics, it becomes quite clear that this was not the first time that government officials practiced othering and thus constructed an image of certain groups as the culprits in a pandemic. The most prominent single case, especially because it found its way into the English language as an everyday expression, is that of Mary Mallon, referred to by the media as “Typhoid Mary”. Foss explains that the term is used to indicate a person who is “an extreme carrier of disease, a burden on society, a scourge of contagion”. [1]

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant to the United States who famously was arrested and put in quarantine in 1906 because health officials of the city of New York were convinced that she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid fever and had caused, in her function as a (somewhat renowned) cook to wealthy New York families, an outbreak of the disease resulting in several deaths. The concept of asymptomatic carriers was new at the time, and when Mary Mallon was labelled as such by sanitation engineer George Soper, she was the perfect person to be made an example of.

Class, race and gender as determinants of health & accountability

Mary Mallon was quarantined for the first time from 1907 to 1910 and after she was set free under the condition to never work as a cook again, was arrested again in 1915. She had not been able to finance her life with a job other than cooking and had thus infected 25 people working in the kitchen of a maternity hospital. As with the first quarantine, she was sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island and lived in a small cottage on the hospital grounds until her death in 1938. She had been detained, without a court conviction for any crime and solely in the name of public health, for a total of 26 years.

Why was Mary Mallon singled out? The literature agrees on three socio-economic traits that predestined her for othering: class, race and gender. [2 3 4] Mary Mallon might have worked at New York’s finest addresses but as a cook, she was part of the working class. And even though she could write and read well, New York’s health officials denied her the capability to understand her health status. [5]

Furthermore, Mary Mallon was Irish and the Irish weren’t necessarily perceived as white at that time. [6] Health officials often blamed epidemics on non-white “races” and did not hesitate to act. In 1900, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco found themselves confined to Chinatown, which had been closed off by health officials over night because of a supposed outbreak of the bubonic plague. [7] Another characteristic that was ascribed to the Irish at the time was stubbornness. This was perceived as the reason why Mary refused to receive potentially life-threatening treatment as a cure for the Typhoid bacillii roaming her intestines. [8]

And last but not least, Mary Mallon was a woman, albeit not an ordinary woman for her time. Mary was unmarried, (physically) strong and did not have children. She was perceived as somewhat masculine and did not fit into the idea people had of respectable women at the time.[9 10] The fact that she had no husband to support her, no children that needed her and that she was not perceived as how a woman should be, made it possible for her to be detained for a lifetime without a prison sentence.[11 12]  This hypothesis is supported by the fact that while there were more than four hundred other asymptomatic carriers of the disease during her lifetime, none of them faced the same fate as her.[13] Foss argues that Mallon has been continually dehumanized by being reduced to her health status, be it by the media or health officials.[14]

Applause is not enough

Sebastian Kurz has made use of the same kind of dehumanization when he blamed immigrants who are members of certain ethnic groups and the working class, and due to their professions very often women, for rising infection numbers. He omitted to mention that these are exactly the people who have been applauded for continuing to do their work during the beginning of the pandemic: the nursing staff, the supermarket cashiers, the gas station salespeople and so many more who build the backbone of Austria’s economy. Most likely, they did not import their infections from their summer holiday destinations but got infected doing essential work in Austria. This is not how they should be thanked.

Recommended sources:

Rund Abdelfatah; Ramtin Arablouei; Julie Caine; N’Jeri Eaton; Laine Kaplan Levenson; Kia Miakka Natisse; Laurence Wu; Jamie York (Producer) (2020): There’s Something About Mary [Throughline]. Retrieved from [21.12.2020]

Bourdain, Anthony (2005): Typhoid Mary. London: Bloomsberg Publishing.

Fitzgerald & Rimini (2019): Typhus Mary. 50 Hertz. Bern: Der gesunde Menschenversand. Retrieved from [10.01.2021]


[1] Foss, Katherine A. (2020): Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 99.

[2] ibid, p. 119.

[3] Hasian, Marouf A. (2007): Macht, medizinisches Wissen und die rhetorische Erfindung der “Typhoid Mary”. In: Philipp Sarasin; Silvia Berger; Hänseler Marianne; Spürri Myriam (Eds.), Bakteriologie und Moderne: Studien zur Biopolitik des Unsichtbaren. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 496-521, pp. 506-517.

[4] Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996): Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, pp. 96-125.

[5] Hasian (2007), p. 508.

[6] Ignatiev, Noel (1995): How the Irish became White. New York, London: Routledge; pp. 2-3.

[7] Hasian (2007), p. 507.

[8] ibid, p. 508.

[9] ibid.

[10] Foss (2020), p. 107.

[11] ibid, p. 119.

[12] Leavitt (1996), p. 97.

[13] Marineli, Filio; Gregory Tsoucalas; Marianna Karamanou; George Androutsos (2013): Mary Mallon (1869-1938) and the history of typhoid fever. Annals of Gastroenterology, 26(2): 132-134, p. 134.

[14] Foss (2020), p. 106.

Epidemics and Gender Vulnerability

Violence against women as a shadow pandemic during COVID-19

By Beverly Mtui, BA.

How the world is fighting two pandemics concurrently

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been reminded that women are affected differently by health crises and emergencies. Professor of history at the University of Agder in Norway, May-Britt Ohman Nielsen, says that “infectious diseases affect women and men differently, primarily because they have different roles and functions through history. The greatest difference regarding illnesses and pandemics is that women often take on emotional responsibilities” i.e. additional care work.[1]

Women are differently affected by epidemics than men

Interestingly, if we take a closer look at history, it appears that women usually have a higher life expectancy than men during epidemics. In the research article Women live longer than men even during severe famines and epidemics[2], the life expectancy of women and men for seven high-mortality populations during extreme mortality conditions between the years 1773 and 1933 was analyzed. It was revealed that even in the face of adverse conditions such as famines (Swedish famine in 1772–1773, Irish famine in 1845–1849 and Ukrainian famine in 1933), epidemics (Icelandic epidemics in 1846 and 1882) and slavery (Freed Liberian slaves from 1820-1843 and Plantations slaves in Trinidad from 1813-1816), women tended to survive better than men.[3] Furthermore, the research shows even for less extreme famines[4] that the overall impact was greater for men than for women, also in regions where the mortality rate for women was generally higher than for men.[5]

The global numbers of COVID-19 deaths paint a similar picture. According to the rapid risk assessment Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update of 8 April 2020, a total of 74 066 deaths have been reported worldwide by 7 April 2020 with 51 059 deaths being reported from the EU/EEA countries and the UK.[6] Despite higher age groups being generally more affected by COVID-19, the risk assessment reports that “for all age groups where the outcome of cases was reported, there were more deaths among males overall”. [7] In fact, the male-to-female ratio for deaths was 2.1.[8]

Good Time Being A Woman?

Taking all of this into account, one would probably agree with North American country artist Emily Reid and think “Good Time Being A Woman.” Unfortunately, not so much: women have been fighting an additional battle. One that existed even before COVID-19 startled the world. Calling it the “Shadow Pandemic”, UN WOMEN highlights the increase of the human rights violation that is violence against women during COVID-19. “Globally, 1 in 3 woman have experienced physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner”. However, UN WOMEN states that “data and reports have shown a rise in all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, since the outbreak of COVID-19”.[9]

In order to understand this phenomenon, we must first deconstruct the term violence. In Violence in War and Peace,[10] Philippe Bourgois analyzes the normalization of violence in society and targets the “continuum of violence”: Violence as such is divided in four different layers: political, structural, symbolic and everyday violence. The interplay of structural and symbolic violence strengthens and amplifies everyday violence that conversely allows the continuation of symbolic and structural violence, and effectively leads to political violence. On the other hand, political violence can induce new forms of structural and symbolic violence leading again to different expressions of everyday violence.

Increases of violence on several levels

In addition, it is clear that violence in all its forms intensifies and fortifies in situations of crisis, particularly health crises, as shown by an increase in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence during the earthquake in Haiti in 2007, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in the 1980s, disasters that led to unemployment, family, and other stressors.[11] Evidently, this is reflected in the current pandemic in the following ways:

Increase of everyday violence: According to UN WOMEN, there has been an increase in reports of domestic violence and calls to women support services, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown period of March-April 2020. In France, reports of domestic violence rose up to more than 30%, and Singapore as well as Cyprus also experienced a rise in emergency calls to women’s helplines of more than 30%.[12] Why? According to the Council of Europe, particularly during the lockdown i.e. “isolation and confinement leads to higher levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence”[13].

Increase of structural and symbolic violence: Economic impacts for women such as earning less, working more, unpaid care work, increased risk of unemployment due to caring for children and people in need, and thus increased risk of poverty.[14]

Increase of political violence: UN WOMEN states that in conflict-affected areas where people depend on humanitarian aid, particularly women and children are at highest immediate-risk for COVID-19. Furthermore, women and girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence in refugee camps, when practicing hygiene at latrines or water distribution sites.[15]

As May-Britt Ohman Nielsen emphasised: “Pandemics are a magnifying glass that sheds light on social conditions, gender included.[16]Therefore, if we ask who is affected by COVID-19, we must also ask how, as it is clear that COVID-19 has an even severer impact on women worldwide.

“Gender-based violence […] is a profound health problem for women across the globe. Although a significant cause of female morbidity and mortality, gender violence is almost never seen as a public health issue.”[17]

[1], accessed November 28, 2020.

[2] Zarulli V et al., “Women Live Longer than Men Even during Severe Famines and Epidemics,” Yearbook of Paediatric Endocrinology, September 11, 2018.

[3] Zarulli et al. 5.

[4] Dutch Hunger Winter, the famines of Madras and Bombay, five south Asian famines, the Bengal famine, and the famine in the Matlab region.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, accessed November 28, 2020.

[7] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19, UN WOMEN, accessed November 28, 2020.

[10] Philippe Bourgois, “The Power of Violence in War and Peace: Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador,” Ethnography 2, no. 1 (2001): 5–34.

[11] Shalini Mittal and Tushar Singh, “Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mini-Review,” Frontiers in Global Women’s Health 1 (September 8, 2020).

[12], accessed November 28, 2020.

[13], accessed November 28, 2020.

[14] Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women (2020), UNITED NATIONS, accessed November 28, 2020.

[15] UN Secretary-General’s policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women; Transcript of the UN Secretary-General’s virtual press encounter on the appeal for global ceasefire, UN, 23 March 2020., accessed November 28, 2020.

[16], accessed November 28, 2020.

[17] Lori Heise, “Gender-Based Abuse: The Global Epidemic,” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 10, no. suppl 1 (1994): 135–45.