Planet COVID-19 may be new terrain, yet, for some of us, it conjures memories, feelings, and wounds of a dark past. Dr. Fauci dominates our airwaves with increasing frequency – at once a truthteller and doomsday sayer. For those of us who survived the HIV pandemic, his raspy voice is both familiar and disquieting. Similarly, the inability of our President to name the threat that surrounds conjures up memories of President Reagan, who neglected to publicly address HIV/AIDS until 1985 – four years into his tenure and tens of thousands of deaths later.
I survived those years by some luck of the draw, yet the emotional scars are indelible. Multiple loss syndrome, panic, despair, and confusion took hold of my community. For gay men of my generation, we learned to endure life during wartime. At the same time, we also learned an enduring lesson that influenced the course of my life: the power of coming together in the face of a crisis.
As new information on prevention and treatment became available, we used our networks – both formal and informal – to spread the word.
We delivered meals, we provided practical and emotional support to those in need, we formed new organizations, we worked to help others but also to help ourselves feel a sense of control in the face of so much hopelessness.
We drew from infinite reservoirs of creativity to activate and influence policy, research, and advocacy. Some of us practiced civil disobedience. Others showed support through philanthropy.
We broke down barriers:
In San Francisco, lesbians, gays, and straights mobilized in unprecedented ways against a common enemy. We witnessed together, we served together, we learned together, we treated our wounded together, we buried our dead together, we acted together.
While there are some parallels to our current predicament, there are also some important differences. Although our current government’s response to COVID-19 has been slow, we now find ourselves in a state of emergency. Our economy is in turmoil, our medical institutions are unprepared, our workplaces and schools are disrupted, and, unlike the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the current hysteria extends to our population at large. We now face a situation in which an entire generation of students is at risk of falling behind – especially those living in poverty with no access to the Internet.
The current call for “social isolation,” while necessary, also flies in the face of everything I learned during my twenties and thirties: the truth is we need each other, now – more than ever. I want to suggest that isolation is as much a state of mind as a real phenomenon. We have our hand-held devices, we have our social media, we have our words, we have our visuals, we have each other. Perhaps the manner in which we connect over the course of this crisis must find new forms, but I have some degree of confidence that we will connect, learn, draw from our infinite capacity for creativity, and help each other. There is no other way.