April Is the Cruellest Month

The Shipping News
by David Waggoner

Calendar page showing the month of April 2020

April is the cruellest month, according to the great twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot. Especially this year, if the months leading up to April have been any indication. The inaction has been mind-boggling—from an awkward statement from the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, that he is not a shipping clerk (in reference to why there was such a lack of personal protective equipment like face masks distributed to American hospitals), to the well-documented uncoordinated early response to the COVID-19 pandemic when there was ample evidence to warn of an impending healthcare disaster that would severely cripple the United States healthcare system.

This inept federal response reminds me of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the non-responsiveness of the Reagan administration (then, the sitting president didn’t even utter the word “AIDS” until after tens of thousands of Americans had already perished from the disease). The difference in the two viruses was that HIV took many years to kill you and the current viral plague, when the disease progresses, does so in less than two weeks from contracting it. While HIV is relatively difficult to contract, COVID-19 is extremely contagious and often strikes those with underlying comorbidities like heart disease, diabetes, COPD, cancer and even asthma. The rate of disease progression has nothing do with the rate of response, however—slow-burning fires and fast-burning ones do not determine the speed of the fire engine!

The beginning of Eliot’s poem seems prescient about vulnerability then and now:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Indeed, we will experience many, many cruel months, and yet many, many people are rising to the occasion. Healthcare workers are working around the clock and other essential workers, like grocery store personnel, are feeding the nation. But the sorrows seem to overwhelm the triumphs. We are awakening all the more to the inequities within our society, as African-American and Latinx communities are disproportionately being pummeled by the virus. HIV long-term survivors are having flashbacks to the first decade of the AIDS pandemic when those who were most marginalized were hit hard by disease and death. And, as I mentioned before, we in the HIV/AIDS community know everything there is to know about sluggish responses of the federal government to addressing needs.

That’s why I am glad we are featuring Billie Cooper as this month’s cover story subject. Interviewed by Senior Editor Hank Trout and photographed by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover, the long-term survivor and activist knows well how to advocate for those in need. Speaking of the first decade of the pandemic, Cooper says: “At that time there were only very limited services for black transgender people. I recognized that my sisters were also dying of this HIV virus just like the boys in the Castro but we weren’t getting services. I had to take care of my sistas who were also battling the virus. I became a more powerful, more vocal transgender activist and advocate for my trans-community.” We in the HIV/AIDS community learned well this rhythm—identify the need, confer about the solution, and then fight for change. It was what Shanti did (featured in this month’s Gallery) and what young trans activists like actor Elliot Fletcher are doing today (read Senior Editor Dann Dulin’s interview in this issue).

It is what we will continue to do, even though we cannot yet do it in person. AIDSWatch went virtual this past month and the International AIDS Conference will convene on the Internet come July. A whole slate of AIDS-related events are being streamed, with many of them fighting for the needs of those affected by COVID-19. The virus demands physical distancing but being apart will not prevent us from becoming closer than ever. Stay safe, everyone!

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