By Jay Sea.
Students have become anxious as they’ve taken stock of the patience and resources needed to weather the current siege of Coronavirus, but for LGBTQ folks living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) this isn’t their first time dealing with a deadly virus.
HIV activist Brenden Shucart, and City College student Brent Ganetta both offered their perspectives as LGBT individuals to The Guardsman with the hope that their experience of surviving HIV can help ease the worry so many students are currently struggling with.
COVID-19 has been compared to HIV regularly, however Shucart and Ganetta drew some key distinctions between the COVID-19 and AIDS pandemics. “Unlike the AIDS virus in means of transmission, HIV can only be passed through fluid to fluid contact, but the coronavirus can live on surfaces” Shucart said, who’s served in HIV advocacy for over a decade working by writing with Project Inform and The Fight Magazine.
Particularly with transmission, first semester Computer Science major Ganetta said, “during the AIDS crisis it was unknown how the virus was spreading and fear lead people to violence against gay men. HIV is transmitted through body fluids, Coronavirus is much, much more communicable on surfaces and through simple handshakes.”
But beyond a scientific level the viruses are also different socially. Albeit forty years apart, people are responding differently to Coronavirus than when HIV exploded in the United States. “HIV was limited to the ‘4-H Club” Shucart said, referring to a term coined in the 1980’s by the mainstream that implied HIV was for homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin-users, and Hatian-ancestry people.
However, a key difference which works in the public’s favor, is the amount of information society now has access to. “As we moved from the AIDS years into the HAART years the amount of information to the public is the opposite of what I received about HIV, we were not well educated, we were mostly just told to be afraid, so that’s a big difference” Shucart said.
HAART is a specialized combination of various medications which is based on the strain of virus the patient has which controls the amount of virus in the blood, thereby preventing AIDS and reversing a fatal diagnosis to a manageable chronic illness.
“Coronavirus, if untreated, develops into the disease COVID-19 which has a deadliness of 0.75-2% people dying that catch it versus HIV which if left untreated, develops into the disease AIDS which is fatal to 96% of people who get it” Shucart said. In California, state and local governments took quick and aggressive action against the spread of COVID-19 in a way governments did not at all at the earliest stages of HIV, with former President Ronald Reagan famously refusing to acknowledge HIV.
When it came to preventing HIV, activists worked to convince heterosexual people to talk about things that made them uncomfortable, but with COVID-19, celebrities have willingly participated in prevention by posting handwashing videos on social media. A new sentiment is emerging, a different narrative from previous plagues is being championed. “It’s incredibly different, the thing that is really heartwarming about it is that it has engendered this ‘we’re all in it together’ spirit that I certainly never experienced in the AIDS crisis” Shucar said.
So in many ways the challenges of AIDS are not exactly the same as the current COVID-19 crisis. However, they’re both viruses and according to fellow student Brent Ganetta who lives with HIV said, “We are seeing history repeat itself with COVID-19, people openly harassing Asian people, getting into physical fights, outright racism even from our President, calling COVID-19 ‘Chinese Virus’. We should not be racially profiling”.
While there are distinctions between the White House of the AIDS crisis which never addressed the problem, this White House calling the current crisis ‘Chinese Virus’ is equally damaging. It is the stigma that is the most unpleasantly familiar aspect of this emergency.
With the frustration and antagonism bred by the virus, it is not unreasonable that people are leaning towards using their coping mechanisms to deal with the stress, which means sometimes disregarding social distancing. Thit in turn, leads those observing this behavior to anger, and shame is often employed as a reaction.
But, according to lessons learned from HIV, that is a counterproductive act. Shucart said “We have playbooks for this, forty years of HIV public health policy, there’s a reason [health] departments across the country stopped employing shame in their messaging, it didn’t work, with gay men in particular.”
When asked what our correspondents are doing to cope or what they recommend, both responded with, “create a routine”. “Try not to worry, check in with friends and family, I’m taking care of myself, tutoring classmates on GoogleHangouts” said Ganetta, “Viruses don’t discriminate, neither should we.”