An essay about AIDS… Or maybe about COVID
The flashbacks started in March. Or maybe earlier. An infectious disease was emerging in December or January or February or 1983.
It was a long way away. China, Korea, Italy. Or was it San Francisco and New York?
In any case, it was so far away, and it was other people. Not us.
When the pandemic started it was gay men then IV drug users then Haitians. When the pandemic became more black and brown than white, we pretended it was over. Or maybe it started more black and brown and then spread white, even infecting the president? I know the second pandemic killed those who survived the first, along with many, many others, and everyone had someone to blame.
The shaming began early. There was the circuit party in March in Florida that led to 20 infections and two deaths. Who could believe that people could be so selfish and stupid to travel and party when a pandemic was starting? I remember where I was in March. I went to a pop culture convention with over 65,000 attendees. There but for the grace of G-d go I. I know people who can’t understand how they survived, but they’re talking about the ’80s and ‘90s.
AIDS deaths broke 100,000 in 1991, a decade after the first recorded case in the US. President Ronald Reagan spoke about AIDS publicly in 1985, four years into the pandemic. The administration treated it as a joke.
COVID deaths broke 100,000 in May, five months after the first case in the US. The president’s response to the pandemic is too painful to watch.
Instead, I watch the virus spiral around me. A friend’s father died in March, and his whole family fights for survival. A friend, laid off because of pandemic shutdowns, catches the virus on his new job. People die alone. Loved ones can’t come near. We cover ourselves, try to protect ourselves, until the pain of being untouched becomes too much to bear. A friend calls me. He may have been exposed to the virus. What can he do to protect himself? How can he prevent it from spreading to others? When it comes to reducing spread is it better to shut down a hot spot — whether it’s a bar or a bathhouse — or is it better to leave them open and provide people the tools — condoms, masks, hand hygiene — to enjoy themselves safely?
Or maybe that was 1990? All I know is I’m having conversations that are eerily familiar.
And I can’t believe I have to do this all over again.
Elizabeth Andre is the author of Tested: Sex, Love, and Friendship in the Shadow of HIV, although she mostly writes lesbian romance, science fiction, and paranormal adventure. If you would like to support her work, become a member of her Patreon or subscribe to her email newsletter.