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COVID today, AIDS 40 years ago


I was scrolling through online movies last night, looking for something to watch, when I came across “The Normal Heart,” director Ryan Murphy’s 2014 film based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 Tony award-winning Broadway play. Murphy’s film, executive-produced by Brad Pitt, had an all-star cast (Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer) and itself won numerous awards.

I’d seen “The Normal Heart” before but, as with all fine art works, I always find new things to like about it. The film is a sensitive portrayal of the way the AIDS epidemic hit America, and in particular New York’s gay community, starting in 1981. While it’s told from Larry Kramer’s occasionally melodramatic point of view, it details the history of this historic epidemic in a way rivaled only by “And the Band Played On,” the 1993 film based on Randy Shilts’ 1987 book of the same name.

Although I lived through AIDS, I’ve also lived through the COVID-19 epidemic, and it’s hard not to make comparisons. AIDS was a direct threat to me, as a young gay man living then at Ground Zero in San Francisco. COVID has not been as much of a threat, although it was impossible to realize that in March, 2020, when it seemed anyone could get it. Now I know that I was not in one of the high-risk groups: nursing home residents, non-English-speaking LatinX, healthcare workers, prison inmates. But I didn’t know that then, and I took the precautions very seriously, wearing a mask all the time outdoors, staying at home for the better part of a year, washing my hands constantly, and social distancing on those occasions when I did dare to venture outside.

When the threat of AIDS really began to strike home for me, in 1983 as dozens of gay San Franciscans were dying every week, I thought I needed to do my part. That summer, I volunteered for The Shanti Project, which assisted AIDS sufferers. Although I was going to grad school fulltime, working fulltime, and had a very busy schedule which included trying to make my relationship with Eugene work, I felt compelled to do something for my community. My Shanti work consisted of helping bed-ridden clients with household chores such as washing dishes, doing laundry, scrubbing toilets, grocery shopping, dusting and vacuuming. Over the course of the next year, I had two clients I grew close to; both died. I have such vivid memories of Jim and Gary. Jim, my first client, said to me one day early in our relationship that it had been six months since he had held another human being in his arms, and did I mind if we just lay on his bed, embracing? He meant it in a non-sexual way. He was dying, his six-foot frame wasted away to less than 100 pounds, and he was so very sad. Shanti’s managers had told us they were convinced the virus, or whatever was causing AIDS, was not transmissible through ordinary bodily contact, but who knew? Yet I had to comply with Jim’s desire. We lay on his bed, him spooning me from behind, while I wrestled with fear, duty, compassion, love. As for Gary, he was on the board of directors of Shanti Project, and figured prominently in the book version of “And the Band Played On.”

Now, here we are, exactly 40 years after the Centers for Disease Control published the shattering article, “Pneumocystis Pneumonia-Los Angeles,” in their newsletter, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The article opened with one of the most famous sentences in medical history: “In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California.”

By contrast, the Weekly Report’s first mention of COVID-19 came on Feb. 7, 2020. It began with this true statement: “In December 2019, an outbreak of acute respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was detected in mainland China. Cases have been reported in 26 additional locations, including the United States.” Sadly, it also included this lie: “CDC, multiple other federal agencies, state and local health departments, and other partners are implementing aggressive measures to substantially slow U.S. transmission of 2019-nCoV…”.  It was a lie, because Donald Trump was the head of government and he had no intention of “implementing aggressive measures” to prevent Americans from dying because he didn’t care. As of today, 570,000 of us have died from COVID-19. Donald Trump is still playing golf.

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