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There are people, including your humble columnist, for whom the COVID-19 pandemic causes flashbacks. Thirty or forty years ago, these people went through something similar: the AIDS epidemic. Kinda been there, kinda done that. Here’s what I learned during the AIDS epidemic that I am now applying to the COVID-19 pandemic.
• COVID-19 and AIDS have similarities. Both are diseases caused by novel viruses. That means that no person on this earth has any natural immunity to infection with them; if you’re a human being, you are vulnerable. Once infected, there is no cure for COVID-19 and, all these years later, there still is effectively no practical cure for AIDS.
• But COVID-19 and AIDS also have differences. For starters, it’s much easier to be infected with COVID-19 than with AIDS. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 appears to be highly infectious because it can spread through the air. That means large social gatherings (like parties, concerts or, say, political rallies) can, and have, become “super-spreader” events.
On the other hand, even though millions of people around the world have died from AIDS-related illnesses, the HIV virus that causes AIDS is a fragile virus that is much more difficult to transmit. Blood or semen must be exchanged to transmit HIV—you can’t get AIDS from hugging someone or being in the same room with them and breathing the same air. For AIDS, a “super-spreader” event is called an orgy.
• Neither coronavirus nor HIV respect demographics. The coronavirus doesn’t respect political affiliations, just as identifying as heterosexual doesn’t protect against HIV.
• Fatalism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people reacted to AIDS by being fatalistic. They assumed they would get it anyway, so they might as well get it over with. Men attended “poz parties” where they engaged in unprotected sex with the goal of becoming infected with HIV. In the same way, the news media today are full of stories of people approaching COVID-19 by thinking, “Well, if I get it, I get it, but this mask is an infringement on my personal liberty.” Too often, this does not work out well for them.
• Infection is life-changing—and not in a good way. Even if someone survives COVID-19, there can be major lingering health consequences. In the same way, even after drug cocktails changed AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable long-term illness, life for survivors was vastly more complicated. The medications that treat AIDS often have unpleasant side effects. Another long-term health consequence involves the ability to get health insurance. Many AIDS patients found themselves uninsurable. Will the same thing happen to those infected by COVID-19? At this point, we don’t know.
• Disease stigma is an issue. The GLBTQ and leather communities are still dealing with the long-standing stigma that comes with being HIV-positive. In the same way, many people who recover from COVID-19 discover they are stigmatized by others for having had the disease.
• Staying disease-free requires life changes. Some people resist them. Strategies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection include frequent hand-washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask—all inconvenient and style-cramping. But AIDS required life changes for gay men that were even more style-cramping—like choosing to become celibate. Others of us changed how much sex we had, and what we did sexually, to minimize our risk of being infected with HIV.
When I hear people rail against face masks today, I hear echoes of people railing against condom usage during the AIDS epidemic. Personally, if I was willing then to use a condom to prevent HIV infection, wearing a face mask now to prevent myself and others from getting COVID-19 is a no-brainer.
• Waiting for life to return to normal once there’s a vaccine? It might be a long wait. I think it’s sobering to realize that even after all these years, there still is no vaccine for AIDS.
• Never mind testing—act as if you are infected and take precautions. Current medical literature says that between 50% and 80% of those infected with coronavirus don’t know they’re infected. So don’t guess and don’t assume. Wear a mask to protect others. Maintain social distancing. Testing during the AIDS era was no assurance that unprotected sex was safe, because it could take weeks or months of being infected before the infection would show up on an HIV test. During the AIDS era, “safer sex” meant assuming anyone involved in a sexual encounter was positive and taking precautions to be sure the virus could not and would not be transmitted. We considered every safer sex encounter to be a little victory, a small rebuke to the virus: “Nope, you don’t get a chance to spread—not this time!”
• And act as if everyone else is infected and take precautions. Wear a mask to protect yourself from airborne droplets. Maintain social distancing. It works both ways.
• Accept that some things won’t be the same, and that in some ways life will have to change. AIDS caused fundamental long-term changes in the gay male community. COVID-19 has already caused many changes around the world in socializing and commerce, and some of these changes may be permanent.
• Acknowledge COVID fatigue. But don’t give in to it. The AIDS epidemic was oppressive for the entire gay community, whether you were someone who was infected or someone who cared for and about those who were infected. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, many people were dealing with “funeral fatigue.” Having to attend so many funerals every week was psychically numbing, let alone caring for and worrying about all your sick friends who were still alive.
But those of us who lived through those awful times are still here. We didn’t give in. We didn’t give up. We didn’t let down our guard. We changed our behaviors and did what we needed to do in order to survive.
Now it’s happening again. I’d like to travel. I’d like to eat in a restaurant. I’d like to go to a bar. I’d like to go to a leather event.
But not if it’s going to kill me.
Instead, I will wait to do all of these things until the time comes—and I believe it will—when doing them won’t kill me.
And in the meantime, I will keep washing my hands, maintaining a healthy social distance, and wearing my face mask as my small rebuke to the coronavirus: “Nope—not this time!”