Special to the Trinity Tripod
Last night, my partner and I lost a good friend to the Corona virus. We now join the hundreds of thousands of other people across the world mourning friends and family in isolation. Eric died alone. His body is being “kept on ice” in a makeshift morgue, and he will not have a proper burial. As we all live through this nightmare of a pandemic and as I reflect on Eric’s death, my thoughts return to another pandemic – the AIDS crisis – that older gay men like myself and Eric lived through several decades ago.
Of course, I know it’s not the same but then why do I feel the same things I felt back then? I know the virus (HIV) that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the novel Corona virus that causes COVID-19 are fundamentally different from one another. I know the ways in which the viruses can be transmitted are very different, with the Corona virus much more easily transmitted and therefore more highly contagious than the Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV). And God knows, I know that the demographics of the diseases are also very different, with HIV impacting mainly men who have sex with men and individuals who share needles, mainly IV drug users. Two highly stigmatized groups in the case of HIV, and all of us in the case of Corona.
All these important differences aside, today’s pandemic brings me back to some of the same feelings I had as a gay man at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe it’s PTSD or maybe its just good old fashioned, unalloyed, rage. Back then, those of us who organized to fight AIDS in the face of government indifference would scream: “We die. They do nothing.” This same phrase wells up in me today as I stare at the television screen and listen to our president drone on and on with half-truths, lies, back peddling, and self-congratulatory statements. He seems incapable of demonstrating any human compassion, not to mention, any meaningful leadership.
Does he not see the devastation, the overcrowded hospitals, the overwrought, desperate, and now dying health care workers pleading for protective gear, reliable testing kits, and ventilators? Does he not see the thousands of people dying alone? Where are our other so-called leaders with even a hint of conscience who will stand up and say: Do more. Do something! Please stop the political pandering. Stop the name calling. For God’s sake, have some humanity. In that national leadership vacuum, one governor, Andrew Cuomo, has emerged to fill the void. But he is one lone voice pleading for help.
Anger isn’t the only emotion that is familiar to me from that other dark time of the AIDS pandemic. I am scared and sad just like I was then at the height of the AIDS crisis. Gay men during that time were constantly on edge, hyper vigilant, and sometimes irrationally paranoid about “catching it.” Some of us were “the worried well.” Some of us refused to succumb to fear and figured out how to have sex during “the plague.” Even after the science told us how exactly the virus was transmitted, through bodily fluids and blood, and how to protect ourselves from it, we could not escape the fear that every sexual encounter was fraught; every relationship, whether sexual, emotional, or platonic, was shrouded with the specter of the disease. I fear that this anxiety will now be the new normal for all of us. In my daily solo walks, I see a similar fear on other people’s faces even as they struggle with a nod or a smile from a distance.
Those of us who lived through the height of the AIDS pandemic in this country and are currently HIV negative think back on those times and count ourselves as lucky. We have even started to forget the friends or lovers we have lost, or maybe they just enter our consciousness less frequently. But today as we mourn Eric’s death, they have returned. They have returned to say: please do not do this again. Do not leave patients to languish in the corridors of overcrowded hospitals. Do not leave health care providers with no protective gear, vital supplies, and medical equipment. Do not allow people to die alone.
Those of us who are HIV positive and living with the virus think about our vulnerability and the specter of death every day, even more so today as the Corona virus strikes those with compromised immune systems. Back then we were lucky that science and medicine finally responded not to short sighted politicians pandering to the biases of either themselves or their constituents, but to their higher calling and developed medications that have kept HIV at bay. For how long we don’t know, and we are still waiting for a cure.
Perhaps it is time for those scientists to once again take a more forceful stand. That happened once before back in the 1980s when a much younger Anthony Fauci assumed leadership of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At that time, AIDS activists did frequent battle with Doctor Fauci around “getting drugs into bodies,” and he eventually emerged from that battle as one of our angels of mercy. Today, as he stands too close to the president in the daily press briefings, I see anguish on his face, not only from the virulence of the disease but the petulance of the president. As Fauci delivers his updates, the byline on the screen should read: Between a rock and a hard place. If only we could push him in the same way that we pushed him during the height of the AIDS pandemic.
But how can we push him and others like him now? Back then, the only solace (and power) we had in the pandemic was our social connections. We attended to our friends and lovers; we were buddies to people with AIDS who needed help with groceries or running errands, or just needed someone to hang out with them. It sounds corny but we were a tribe – sometimes dancing, laughing, quarreling, mourning – but always able to touch. Today we cannot even do that. he necessity to socially distance is increasing our alienation. A “zoom happy hour,” “zoom Passover,” “zoom Easter,” “zoom Ramadan,” cannot compare to a human touch, a smile, or a co-present unmediated celebration. I do not want to minimize the inspiring volunteerism that has sprung up in the face of this pandemic or the creative ways that we are using social media to connect. But just like during the AIDS crisis volunteerism wasn’t enough. And it is not enough now.
The imperative to social distance eliminates the very thing that led to our pressure on Fauci, the Center for Disease Control, and the federal government all of whom ignored the devastation of AIDS and treated those of us who were its chief victims with disgust or disregard. We fought back. We fought AIDS. How do we do that again without the human connection; without the ability to take to the streets like we did back then? Just like back then, the normal levers of influence today seem ill equipped, unwilling, or maybe paralyzed by the dire divisions in the nation to act differently, bravely, and without regard to petty politics. How do we grease those levers; how do we become the squeaky wheels, from our laptops, smart phones, and zoom ‘hook ups’? I don’t know. For now, and for tonight we will toast Eric remotely and wait for the day when we can mourn him with a dance on the beach.
Stephen Valocchi is a Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life at Trinity and across the world, the Tripod is working to preserve stories, thoughts, and reflections from the campus community. If you are a student, alumni/alumnae, or faculty members, we invite your submissions on any aspect of the crisis directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.