Since the earliest days of COVID, I have been struck by the parallels between the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis as the onset of COVID. I say that as a 54-year-old gay man who was just 12 when HIV/AIDS first appeared. Let me share a few of those parallels.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked about condoms being a major tool of prevention. In the early days of COVID, we talked about masks being a major tool of prevention. In both cases, people resisted using those tools of prevention – often lashing out and saying their preventative abilities were overstated.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about safer sex as a way of reducing transmission. In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about social distancing as a way of reducing the risk of transmission. In both cases, many were reluctant to adopt the practices since they were “clunky”, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about the belief that all we needed was a vaccine. Once we had one, then things could return to “normal”. After nearly 35 years, PrEP was developed to help insulate many from the virus. While it’s not the same as a vaccine (PrEP is a pill that must be taken daily instead of a shot that’s given once every 6 months), it does provide a degree of protection that was only dreamed of in the 1980’s. In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about the belief that a vaccine would defeat the virus and let us return to normal. In just a few months, not just one but 3 vaccines were developed to insulate many from the virus. In both cases, however, the promised “return to normal” did not immediately follow the development of vaccines.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment. They were often explicitly told they deserved what they got since they hadn’t taken precautions. In the early days of COVID, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment as many told them they too got what they deserved.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, many in the gay community felt it was inevitable that they would get the virus. Consequently, they decided not to use protections. In the early days of COVID, there was much talk about “herd immunity” – and some thought it would be a natural part of the process of defeating COVID. As a result, many of these folks decided not to use protections.
In the early days of HIV/AIDS, religious extremists were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) HIV/AIDS. They refused attempts to fund prevention efforts (be they educational efforts that talked about anything other than abstinence or prevention methods like condoms). In the early days of COVID, religious extremists again were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) COVID. They screamed about their First Amendment Right to gather (even when such gatherings were killing members of their congregations) and they often flaunted their beliefs that vaccines and masks don’t work (despite scientific evidence to the contrary).
I could go on an on about the parallels between the early days of HIV/AIDS and the early days of COVID – but I think you get the point.
So why am I talking about this?
Well, when the latest surge of COVID began to unfold this December here in LA, I hit a sort of wall in my efforts to be the sort of loving, empathetic person I normally am when dealing with those in need. I began to be extremely angry and frustrated with folks for not GETTING the seriousness of the virus with which we are dealing.
So many I dealt with held the belief that because they had gotten vaccinated and used masks that things were supposed to return to normal. In fact, there was a sense that because they had done all the right things, they were entitled for things to go back to the way they were. They could travel just as much as they had before COVID, and they could attend social gatherings at the holidays (especially at the holidays) just as they had done before. Many would say things like, “After nearly two years of this COVID stuff, I’m tired. I just want things to be the way they used to be!”
On one level, I can understand their feelings. That’s because for those of us who are gay or bisexual men over 50, we thought the same thing – back in 1982. When HIV/AIDS sprung on the scene publicly in 1980, we thought it too would be a short-lived experience. When the treatment of AZT was developed, some of us felt entitled to return to life as we had known it.
And yet – 42 years later, here we are. Our worlds have been changed: forever. We have had to rethink our approach about nearly everything – from sex, to relationships, to what a healthy lifestyle looks like … you name it, and 42 years later we are still negotiating the effects of the virus. HIV changed our worlds forever.
I say that because every day I wake up and deal with folks who are angry and frustrated that the world has changed, I tell myself, “Craig, remember that the vast majority of these folks are not a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Even those who are allies don’t know what it’s like to have their world turned upside down overnight. They haven’t had to live with the consequences of a virus for 42 years. This is brand new to them.”
When I remember that, I’m much more likely to be patient. But I think with this latest surge, I’ve come to the realization that being my better self doesn’t just involve keeping my mouth shut and letting them rage. Being my better self includes saying things like, “You know other communities have dealt with similar challenges before. If you want help in processing these things, it might be helpful to seek out someone who has been there before. Someone who can share insights into how to manage some of the things that seem unmanageable for you today.”
I am grateful for this opportunity to share what has been building inside me for the past 21 months. And on my good days, I’ll be happy to share my experience so that we can overcome expressions of entitlement – and begin adapting permanently to this new (post-virus) world in which we now live.