Fear, AIDS, and the Coronavirus

The late Richard Jacobs and author Brad Graber.

Am I having trouble breathing? Is that cough an allergy or something more serious? Am I feeling feverish?

These are the thoughts racing through my mind as I socially distance from everyone except my husband, Jeff. Am I afraid of coronavirus? You bet.

I’ve been through this before. I know the damage a virus can do.

Back in 1988, my partner Richard was diagnosed with pneumocystis and then full-blown AIDS. He died a year later. As I left his hospital room for the very last time, I couldn’t imagine that a virus could actually take away the love of my life. A virus! How could modern medicine not be able to protect us? It seemed inconceivable.

It’s been over thirty years since Richard’s death. In that time, I learned to live again. I met my husband Jeff. All the dreams that I had, have come true. I’ve traveled. I’ve married. I’ve loved.

But for the first five years of my life with Jeff, who was HIV-negative, I worried that he too might die of some random, unforeseen event. In a plane crash traveling for business. In a car wreck coming home from the office. Any event as unexpected as an unseen virus. That suddenly everything would come to an end. Our world might be turned upside down. But instead of working through the anxiety with a therapist, I didn’t talk about my fears of losing Jeff. The bad dreams eventually went away. If I pretended I was fine, I could go on. After all I assumed no one wanted to hear about the terror. And though I’ve always told friends about my history with Richard, with time and distance, the trauma of losing Richard had somehow become unreal.

Until now.

When CBS This Morning reporter Seth Doane announced he contracted coronavirus and was quarantined with his husband, I felt the familiar panic. Could this all really be happening again? Are we poised on the precipice of a major health crisis with no cure in sight? How many would die? Could it be possible to have survived AIDS and now face extinction from another virus?

I tried to refocus, but the fear was back.

Though I’m perfectly healthy, I’m now having trouble sleeping. I’m up at 2 a.m., tossing and turning. There’s tension in my chest. I’ve been gripped by a familiar anxiety. And as I take deep breaths, I’m reminded of another time when life wasn’t under control, when there were no treatments for a young man dying of a virus.

I wonder how many other survivors of the AIDS crisis are experiencing similar post-traumatic stress.

With the coronavirus, America has signaled that we’re all in this together. And that is certainly very different than the days of former President Ronald Reagan. But if you listen closely, you can hear echoes of the troubling past. The government is not ready. President Trump dismantled former President Obama’s pandemic response team which had so successfully combatted Ebola. Ventilators and masks are in short supply. Widespread testing is unavailable. And the mixed messages from President Trump’s press briefings are leading to more confusion and worry.

Mistakes will surely be made. We’re only human. But this time around, despite early missteps, the response will be swift. Those of us who have lived through the AIDS crisis are aware of the tremendous work of the LGBT community to change how America responds to a viral emergency. I’m grateful to ACT UP and the other powerful voices that pressed the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to shorten the timeframe for testing and bringing new drugs to market.

A vaccine in a year and a half? It has to be. Because the virus will affect everyone regardless of sexual preference. It’s an equal opportunity enemy.

So for those of us who have survived the AIDS crisis, we’ll need to take deep breaths and release the fear. We’ll push past this present crisis. We know the drill. We’ve been here before.


Brad Graber is a former healthcare administrator. He writes the blog There, I Said It!, is the author of The Intersect and After the Fall. His latest release is What’s That Growing in My Sour Cream? Humorous Observations on Modern Life. He can be reached at his website.


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