Fever Pitch: COVID-19 & AIDS Activism

Fever Pitch
by David Waggoner

David Waggoner

Mayhem has yet to ensue on our shores, but the rise of coronavirus disease 2019/COVID-19 infections in the U.S. has nonetheless sparked a wave of stigma and fear-based reactions. It has been a mix of racism and xenophobia, as COVID-19 is thought to have originated in China. Visitors and tourists are staying away from San Francisco’s Chinatown, according to PBS Newshour. The news program also reported that a student from Singapore was severely beaten in London. A death threat directed to an individual awaiting a screening for the virus, angry directives to others to quarantine themselves, public shamings—all reported in The New York Times and all happened in the United States of America.

Echoes of the public response to AIDS circa 1984 have not been lost on me and have not been lost on anyone in the HIV/AIDS community who lived through those times, especially now that evangelical Christians have started to link the LGBT community with coronavirus. Of course, AIDS stigma has not died out, though arguably it is no longer at the fever pitch it once was. The most egregious incidents on record (houses burned; patients abandoned in hospitals; the dead buried on islands) are part of our country’s shameful history. Yet stigma continues, fueling HIV criminalization, among other discriminatory practices.

I mean to say, ultimately, that we in the HIV/AIDS community can be leaders in this moment. We can take action when we see COVID-19 stigma take hold in our communities. We can challenge misinformation, conspiracy theories, and racism.

Disposable dressing on the face. Healthcare background. Blue medical disposable face mask with covid-19 print. Photo by iStock

Importantly, we can promote community at a time when isolationism might rule the day. Isn’t that what many in the LGBT community and their allies did in the first decade of the pandemic? Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part we ran toward each other, not away from each other. We learned the modes of transmission and based our care on science rather than hysteria. We did not let our brothers and sisters live in their homes or stay in their hospital rooms as if they were test-drive coffins. We tended to their needs, the serious and the silly. We squeezed any ounce of life, at its most celebratory, out of the darkest moments. Our empathy was forged not from “there but for the grace of God go I” but very often from “there go I—someday,” for many of us were living with HIV ourselves or knew that we could be soon.

That is why I am heartened that we are featuring writer, editor and scholar Jack Fritscher in this month’s cover story interview. Penned by Special Projects Editor Lester Strong, and lovingly photographed by Michael Kerner, the feature revisits the early decades of the pandemic, a time when community members like Jack pitched in. He told Lester about the urgency to preserve what was being lost: “When the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the Drummer office, I suddenly woke anew to the devastating effects of AIDS on the lives of friends, acquaintances, artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, and ordinary guys, and began to record their stories, with permission, over the phone.” His impetus resonates with my own idea to archive cultural responses to HIV/AIDS in the pages of A&U.

But here we are in 2020. We are still documenting the past, but many long-term survivors are addressing concerns affecting our community right now. Columnists Hank Trout, John Francis Leonard, and Corey Saucier, all long-term survivors, are joined in the March issue by Paul A. Aguilar, who takes umbrage at the erasure of the word “AIDS, and Bruce Ward, who points out how the play The Inheritance falls short when it comes to representing AIDS. And Managing Editor Chael Needle interviews artist Alex Alferov, who continues to explore themes surrounding HIV/AIDS some four decades into his career. Lastly, Senior Editor Dann Dulin shares insights from John Duran, who knows well the intersection of politics and HIV.

As we honor long-term activism, let’s remember that we have the tools to address this new COVID-19 epidemic. Let’s roll up our sleeves, wash our hands and get to work.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.