FOR THOSE OF US who recall the beginnings of the hiv-aids pandemic, covid-19 is an eerie reminder of what we lived through in the dark years when an AIDS diagnosis meant almost-certain death.
As I write this, the new coronavirus has appeared in all fifty states and around the world. Numbers of cases are rising rapidly in the U.S., but testing continues to be spotty. Rising cases and shortages of basic medical equipment and protective gear are rattling nerves and causing the stock markets to plunge. Residents of many cities and states have been ordered to “shelter in place.” Businesses are closed; millions are losing their jobs; financial catastrophe looms.
How this still unfolding health crisis will play out is impossible to predict. But those of us who lived through the terrifying early years of hiv-aids learned some lessons that can help us get through this latest pandemic, too. First and foremost, the AIDS pandemic showed us, as individuals and a nationwide community, our power to create change. ACT UP taught us that silence equals death. Our AIDS educators regularly reminded us that knowledge and factual information equal power.
In those dark early years of the plague, we learned not only to take precautions but also to use non-stigmatizing language like “PWA” (person with AIDS) instead of “AIDS victim.” Extraordinary numbers of us across the country volunteered as AIDS buddies, raised much-needed money in the AIDS walks and bikeathons, and found other ways to support our community’s heroic responses to the pandemic.
When hiv-aids was still mostly mysterious, we shared information person-to-person, through our community media, and at Pride festivals. We made safer sex a community value and reminded one another in posters and one-to-one conversations that we each had a part in upholding it for the sake of our own health and the well being of our community. AIDS taught us that we are interconnected, that our health as individuals is part of the overall health of the world community. It proved once again the timeless truth of John Donne’s 17th-century observation that “no man is an island.”
Like the AIDS pandemic, covid-19 represents a call to action. Having been through it before, the LGBT community in particular can be strong and resilient. We know the power of language to stigmatize or to heal, and we know that standing together as a community—even when “social distancing” requires physical separation—will get us through this crisis.
John-Manuel Andriote, the author of Victory Deferredand Stonewall Strong, writes a regular blog for Psychology Today.