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.