As we enter the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with nations beginning phases of reopening — some quicker than others — one poses the question: What happens now? Or rather: What have we learned and will continue to learn from this experience?
One thing for sure is that the United States has had one of the worst responses to COVID-19 and is leading in the number of cases and deaths across the globe. However, one begins to wonder if this comes with any level of surprise given the historically negligent response by the United States to other viruses, which I assert through the expression “viral hysteria” (the sociopolitical reaction to viruses).
The reality is the United States was never ready and is ultimately ill-prepared to handle such a fast spreading pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, especially when the current administration has systematically rejected the role of science to inform policy. One can also argue American arrogance is playing a major role as to why there is such a wide range of responses to COVID-19 in comparison to other nations.
One positive thing to note is the current response to develop a COVID-19 test and the growing conversation surrounding the development of a vaccine by leading pharmaceutical companies, which is also contributing to the growing debate over access to and the cost of a COVID-19 vaccine. Ironically, the recent surge in availability of testing and growing conversations around antiretroviral therapies, as well as experimentation with drugs to ease the severe symptoms experienced by those testing positive for COVID-19.
I find it important to highlight the current response to COVID-19 being a direct result of the global activism and conversation that has already existed around HIV and AIDS, as well as preventative measures like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and the Undetectable Equals Untransmittable (U=U) campaign.
As a person living with HIV who has an undetectable viral load, I find myself not only thriving in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic but also feeling slightly puzzled more often than not by the language surrounding this virus. The puzzling nature being a result of my internal processing of how to respond when I’m asked the question: Have you tested positive yet? Ultimately, I’m left feeling unsure what to mention for what my current positive status is for.
Are you asking about the HIV that I contracted in August 2016? Or are you asking me if I tested positive for COVID-19? That I have evidently survived the new coronavirus, developed antibodies, and can now hangout, hike, do brunch, attend a trendy protest for Black Lives Matter (#BLM) or rightfully show solidarity for my Black transgender sisters by joining them in Brooklyn to scream from the top of our lungs that Black Trans Lives Matter?
I posit that last phrase as the only thing we should be acknowledging right now, because more often than not the world has remained virtually silent around the growing number of murders impacting the Black trans community. I believe the world is not ready to acknowledge that truth.
Nevertheless, I find myself sequestered in my room because I need to work from home to sustain my livelihood — by having access to income that affords me money for rent to have a roof over my head and access to a job with benefits to maintain my insurance and access to life saving medication.
Or do I risk eviction by joining the rent strike because we know housing insecurity has always been a reality for queer bodies, as well as access to insurance to afford and curb the monthly cost of HIV medication, because without it what are my chances of living right?
Let’s talk about the ways big pharmaceutical companies that have developed antiretroviral therapy for HIV are currently monopolizing the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. This has made me question: At what cost am I willing to stay alive? Because when I’m asked this question — “Have you tested positive yet?” — I find myself experiencing anxiety and a loss of words except for this mental rhetorical response: “Positive...for what?” Because disclosure and shame have always existed around a positive HIV status.
We all know the role the HIV and AIDS era had in forcing world governments to acknowledge the need for the development of societal programs and resources for people impacted by such diseases. This can be seen in campaigns aimed at supporting the HIV and AIDS crisis in Africa from the early 2000s or even international days of awareness like World AIDS Day and other specific HIV awareness days.
We have celebrities living with HIV and even medication to prevent the transmission of HIV. Even the growing acknowledgement of HIV and AIDS artists and activists and all the work they’ve done in driving and progressing the conversation around HIV and AIDS is another thing to highlight as to why the language that exists today has inadvertently shaped the way society is responding to COVID-19.
Nevertheless, all these positive things created out of the HIV and AIDS crisis have yet to do away with much of the social stigma and discrimination that still exists, which has directly impacted people accessing HIV services.
No one should feel ashamed of having COVID-19. It’s a virus, NOT a crime. Share your stories, spread awareness, and ask for prayers. We’re all in this pandemic together!— sierra ♡´･ᴗ･`♡ (@sierraszn) June 29, 2020
All of that leads me to posit the above tweet from June 29, 2020, which accrued 6,288 retweets and 13,800 likes. That tweet inspired me to write this op-ed to confront the hypocritic language that exist around viruses, especially now during this time of viral hysteria.
The tweet reads: “No one should feel ashamed of having COVID-19. It’s a virus, NOT a crime. Share your stories, spread awareness, and ask for prayers. We’re all in this pandemic together!”
The assumed intent of this tweet was to undo the shame of having COVID-19 by using language like “[it’s] a virus, NOT a crime.” I challenge this hypocrisy by juxtaposing the ways HIV and AIDS have often been criminalized by the law. The writer of this tweet urges those who engaged with their tweet to “share [your] stories, spread awareness, and ask for prayers,” which a simple internet search can amass a plethora of stories and conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19.
This tweet at its core highlights the global hypocrisy concerning the ways we approach the sociopolitical impact of viruses and how mass hysteria can lead to the development of shame and social stigmas, ultimately resulting in people not taking their health seriously.
I call in the words and actions of Corey Hannon, a 27-year-old gay man, who informed his Instagram followers that he was actively experiencing COVID-19 symptoms while sitting on a Fire Island beach. Specifically, I’m referring to Hannon’s words during his since-then deleted response video where he discusses feeling “scared and alone” being a direct reason why he forewent a 14-day quarantine, which is suggested if one is actively experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
This response only came after Hannon was criticized and shamed for his actions, booed from a train and was being harassed by reporters outside his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I challenge folks like Hannon to really stop and think about the ways their actions are dismissive of an important moment of LGBTQ+ history and the ways it has been impacted by HIV and AIDS.
It posits the frank reality of these questions: If people are not willing to wear a mask to avoid spreading the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, what makes us think people will wear a condom? Or let alone take preventative HIV medication that comes with a high cost and a round of pharmaceutical games? Or face the reality of having a positive diagnosis for a virus the world isn’t prepared for — be it HIV or SARS-CoV-2?
Is this naivety a direct result of the way COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting low income communities of color similar to how HIV and AIDS have historically affected these communities as well? And is this why the Trump administration is taking such a blind eye to COVID-19? Because we all know — especially those of us living with HIV in the now — we are fighting to live in a for-profit health care system.
C.M. (he/she/they) is an educator, researcher, lecturer, sculptor, mixed media artist. C.M. has recently embraced artmaking and hopes to enter the world of creative art therapy and ultimately make a name for themself.
Recently, C.M. has begun to interrogate the ways by which antiretroviral therapy (ART) and art therapy merge as a public display of undoing shame by exploring the ways art can be seen as an expression healing and asserting one’s existence.