Guest blogger Rosemary Ann Davis is a memoirist, poet, travel writer, photographer, and member of the original WordSisters writing group.
It started with a cough.
As the numbers of those sick and dying from Covid 19 mount, I continue to have flashbacks to a different time. Forty years ago, another health crisis was just beginning in America and I found myself drawn to the chaos and denial. Having just left San Francisco, I began to hear about a “gay cancer,” and started warning my men friends back in the Bay Area to be careful.
The panic I felt that morning reading the sketchy details about HIV AIDS in the Star Tribune is similar to the disturbing feelings I had when going into quarantine for the coronavirus this past March in Minneapolis. The similarities don’t end.
While uncertainty gripped me in the early 1980s; I learned more about HIV AIDS with time, and many visits back out West. As I learned how HIV was spread, I modified my sexual behavior; and now in 2020, I wear a mask, wash my hands, and keep 6 feet of distance.
Protests then and now have echoes of familiarity. Current marches around the world about government responses to Covid 19 remind me of San Francisco and D.C. marches in the states long ago. Dr. Fauci was in a key leadership position both times, now putting his AIDS work on hold to wrestle with the coronavirus. I remember AIDS marches where the doctor was vilified because the science wasn’t working fast enough for a cure. At one point I flew to Washington, D.C. to participate in a die-in at the White House. Laying on that hard ground surrounded by like-minded folks from across the country gave me a safe place to reflect on and mourn the one thousand young men who had died in my San Francisco neighborhood in one year.
People dying in both health emergencies remained isolated. AIDS patients were abandoned by parents in droves because of their gayness, while Covid patients’ friends and relatives are kept out of hospitals to avoid infection. If they were lucky, people with AIDS were taken care of by their lovers’ mothers, the ones who were accepting. These days, some dying of the current virus can speak on the phone or other electronic media with their family members if medical people have the time to accommodate them.
I’m still grieving my friends who have died, and wrote a book, Before They Left Us, to honor them and those times before and after AIDS took them. Although there have been many improvements in the fight against AIDS, I still donate to the cause, attend memorial events, and deliver food on the holidays some 40 years later. My friends are still with me, whenever I visit the Bay Area, am back in the Midwest, or wherever I am. That’s the kind of effect the AIDS crisis had and continues to have on me.
While we are now nearing 175,000 dead of the pandemic in the U.S., I’m sure that these losses will also affect the surviving families for years to come. Grandparents, middle-aged parents, even children, have all died from this. What changed the direction of my life and turned me into an AIDS activist, perhaps will change theirs as well. Loss can do that to you.
Our federal government has been at odds with its citizens during both of these epidemics. In the 80s, the President wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS,” much less address it. Now, it feels as if we are being told it is more important to get the economy going than to concentrate on lowering the infection and death rates. What good will the economy be if hundreds of thousands of us are dead?
So, what can we learn from all of this? To a large extent it is up to us to change our behavior to avoid getting the infection and transmitting it. We can also encourage others to do the same. Speaking truth to power—whether it be engaging in conversations or protesting in the streets, can be a form of influence. Most importantly, we can show compassion particularly to those with the virus, those who are grieving, those who want to honor the dead, those who are working towards a just and healthy society, and even those who are not.