Be the Light at Tunnel’s End
For Some of Us, Social Isolation Is Nothing New
by Hank Trout
Here in San Francisco, as I write this, we are entering our twelfth week of shelter-in-place lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most part, San Franciscans have complied with shelter-in-place orders and other guidelines for protecting ourselves and our community (wearing masks; maintaining social distance). Our cooperative efforts have paid off. In San Francisco County, with 880,000+ residents, there have been only 2,179 COVID-19 cases and only 36 COVID-related deaths. While those numbers are still unconscionably high, they are far more promising than numbers in other communities of similar size in the U.S.
Just like other cities in the U.S., the lockdown has wreaked havoc on the economic well-being of the City. Restaurants, bars, nightlife venues, bookstores, and other small businesses face closure, worker lay-offs, and adapting new business strategies (restaurants offering take-out and delivery; bookstores offering curbside service). The non-profit organizations in the City, particularly in the HIV community, are acutely suffering. Joe Hollendoner, the CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has said that the cancellation of the 2020 AIDS Life/Cycle ride alone will mean a shortfall of $3-4 million in the Foundation’s annual fundraising——already exacerbated by the cancellation of Dining Out For Life in April. Many services offered by SFAF and the Shanti Project, another ASO in San Francisco, and other ASOs elsewhere, have been either greatly scaled back or morphed into “virtual” services. Getting those services ramped back up once we are on the other side of this pandemic will take time and a lot of money.
But for those of us in the HIV community, the economic stress brought on by this pandemic is dwarfed by the other stresses it has created or exacerbated. In May of this year, Brandon Brown, associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health in the UC Riverside School of Medicine, conducted an anonymous, Internet-based survey of gay men living with HIV and found that they experience frustration, boredom, loneliness, sleep disruptions, and a lack of exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, “High levels of social isolation, anxiety and depression during this pandemic may differentiate the HIV and aging population from others, since they have already endured significant trauma, isolation, and post-traumatic stress disorder due to losses from AIDS,” Brown said in the research paper called “Leaning on Community-Based Participatory Research to Respond During COVID-19.” Perhaps even more troubling, the study found that the pandemic has caused people aging with HIV to miss taking their HIV medications; some participants described the pandemic as a disorienting event that has made adhering to their medical regimen difficult, while others cannot get their medication because they have lost their employer-based health insurance and, thus, access to their medications. Making matters even worse, long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS will probably have to shelter-in-place at home to protect themselves, and others, even after the rest of the population is able to come out of physical isolation.
The light at the end of this tunnel doesn’t shine very brightly for us long-term survivors.
And, of course, here in California we have our share of right-wing nutballs protesting shelter-in-place orders and other health-conscious guidelines for living through this pandemic. You know the type——the heavily armed good ole Bubbas with swastika tattoos and Confederate flags whose lives have lost meaning since they can’t gather for their weekly cross-burning soirees, and “Karens” who will simply die if they can’t get to the beauty parlor for their wash-and-tint and don’t give a crap whether you die as long as their roots don’t show. They rant and rail about their “liberty” being taken away because saner people have asked them to behave in a way to stop a deadly viral pandemic.
To those people, I have two words:
Like several long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS, I am quite familiar with imposed isolation. For more than two years, I have been confined to a wheelchair whenever I leave the apartment——which means, I cannot leave home without a companion to push me around. I know full well what it’s like to have your mobility infringed and your social connections ripped asunder. And I’m not the only one——shelter-in-place home rules are old hat for some of us survivors disabled by HIV/AIDS.
For us, this pandemic is more than just a missed beauty parlor appointment.
And so, as we emerge out of this pandemic (soon, we hope), let’s not forget those HIV-positive women and men for whom social isolation, ostracism, and economic hardship are nothing new. Reach out to them. Call them. As soon as we can hug again, hug them! Ask if they need anything.
Trust me, we need you. Be the light at our tunnel’s end.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.