Opinion: Lessons from HIV/AIDS crisis can inform COVID-19 fight

In 1988, people watch as almost 1,500 quilt panels bearing the names of New York area residents who died of AIDS are unfolded on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park. Author Jeff Graham says society’s early treatment of the HIV/AIDS crisis carries lessons for us today in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Wilbur Funches, File)
In 1988, people watch as almost 1,500 quilt panels bearing the names of New York area residents who died of AIDS are unfolded on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park. Author Jeff Graham says society’s early treatment of the HIV/AIDS crisis carries lessons for us today in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Wilbur Funches, File)

As the United States continues to confront the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on the parallels between this public health crisis and the one that defined my formative years as an adult, a community leader and an out gay man: the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Of course, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are not the same – but there are definite similarities in the way the public and government officials have responded. I want to share some lessons that took way too long for our country to learn back then.

I came out as gay in 1983 at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, which for many Americans shattered the silence of LGBTQ lives for the first time. My early years of being out were simultaneous with the early years of the epidemic, so, many people I talked to regularly conflated having HIV/AIDS with being a part of the LGBTQ community, treating the two as one in the same. I was asked repeatedly why I chose to be gay if I knew that doing so would cause me to die of AIDS. I was laughed at when I asked my straight peers what they were doing to protect themselves from HIV.

In my early 20’s I thought of AIDS as a disease that was only going to affect older gay men, until I saw my first display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I was blown away by the number of people, many my age, who had died. That shock motivated me into action with ACT UP Atlanta. Eventually, I began my first professional job with the AIDS Survival Project, through which we provided one-on-one peer counseling and facilitated sharing of information and resources among people living with HIV.

In that time, we learned the importance of taking care of each other and ourselves. As the government all but ignored the epidemic, incorrectly dismissing it as a problem exclusive to gay men and Haitian immigrants, we built community among ourselves and became experts on the virus, and outspoken advocates on what public officials needed to do.

The lesson from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that may be most important of all is that we must resist the urge to blame or scapegoat marginalized peoples who are living with the novel coronavirus. In an effort to protect our families, we can’t allow fear to compel us to harm “others.”

When the President calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” I’m brought back to the years that people called HIV/AIDS “gay cancer,” the “gay plague,” or a punishment from God. Names like that push forward false information about who is vulnerable to the virus and cast aspersions and bias against already-vulnerable people.

It’s so critical that we don’t lose our humanity as COVID-19 becomes more widespread. It’s vital that we don’t lean into fear. Let’s ensure that we’re not discriminating against people who face challenges because of their ethnicity, their health, their income level, or simply because they are different than us.

At the heart of it all is the understanding that no one benefits from discriminating against people because of who they are.

In my home state of Georgia, we’ve been locked in a battle for years about who should be protected from discrimination. Right now, like 29 other states, we don’t have state-level nondiscrimination protections for our LGBTQ community. Once we get through the immediate challenges of this health crisis, state and local governments need to make sure people are protected no matter how they look, where they come from, how they pray, or who they love.

After all, what happens when society says some people can be left out? What happens when governments exclude people from policies and leave some vulnerable to mistreatment?

That exclusion and bias allowed HIV to spread around the world. The virus took root in already-marginalized communities – not only in the LGBTQ community, but injection drug users, immigrants, the undereducated. The government ignored these people as expendable. In a pandemic moving so quickly as COVID-19, the concept of “triage” is being tossed around, but we must resist this shameful impulse and urge our government to do the right thing. We all must prioritize a core value: No one is expendable. Everyone deserves testing. Everyone deserves treatment. Everyone deserves equal respect.

It’s up to us to get that message across to save one another and ourselves.

Jeff Graham is executive director, Georgia Equality.