How could this happen? Yup.
Government late to the problem and lacking solutions? Yup.
Raw fear? Yup.
Hospitals overflowing? Yup.
Uncertainty about who is well and who is not? Yup.
Lack of clarity regarding transmission and lethality? Yup.
As gay men of a certain age, my colleague Dr. David Fawcett and I are having some uncomfortably familiar feelings. Déjà vu, if you will. You see, we’ve already lived through a plague – in this country, in our lifetimes. We’ve seen sickness, overflowing hospitals, and death on a mass scale. And to be honest, we were hoping those experiences would occur only once in our lifetimes. But apparently not. Because here we are again.
There was a time, not so long ago, when nearly everyone we knew was afraid of a potentially deadly disease that they didn’t understand, with symptoms that didn’t manifest immediately, sporadic testing, and no cure. It was a time when none of us know who did and who didn’t have a lethal and easily communicable disease. People were dying – quickly, unpleasantly, far too young. We had no idea how to stop the spread, and our government failed to grasp the enormity of what was happening. So we watched helplessly as countless friends and loved ones grew sick and died.
For most of America, the early-1980s were pretty awesome. Wham, Madonna, Whitney, Prince, and Michael. The mall, bright colors, big hair, and all-night dance parties. Other than the constant fear of nuclear holocaust, life was relatively simple. Until the plague. Which not everyone experienced. Many people died or loved someone who died. But much of our nation never got closer to the epidemic than listening to Dan Rather on the evening news.
For the most part, AIDS was viewed as a “gay virus,” and the majority of the American populace was not at risk. Our current plague started in similar fashion, initially labeled the “Chinese virus” by government officials and others who were eager to distance themselves and to declare themselves and other God-fearing Americans as immune to all things bad or painful or deadly. “Not me. Not us. Nothing to worry about here.”
Then we found out COVID-19 is an equal-opportunity disease.
For people who lived through and remember the unimaginable horrors of the AIDS epidemic, the current pandemic is creating some post-traumatic stress symptoms. We remember crossing names out in our address books until there were hardly any names left. We remember going to memorials three times a week. We remember when we were so wounded, so damaged by all the death and dying that we decided we would no longer go to memorials. We simply had no tears left.
We also remember a sense of us and them. In the 1980s, the White House, the social elite, and much of America embraced expensive tastes, extravagant events, gigantic shoulder pads, and a culture of self-absorption. Our favorite TV show was Dynasty. “Greed is good” was more than a line from a movie; it was a mantra. And I have to ask: Are we much different today, with government geared toward the rich, massive drug-fueled ‘circuit’ parties, $1500 skinny jeans, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
In the 1980s, it was the ‘4H Club’ that was dying: Homosexuals, Haitians, Heroin Addicts, and Hemophiliacs. Right-wing politicians and religious leaders used this to foster discrimination and stigma, and as the rationale for ignoring the epidemic and letting the disease run its course with little or no intervention. They actually said hateful things like, “AIDS is a punishment from God,” and, “These people brought this on themselves, so why should we try to help?”
With coronavirus, of course, it’s a little different. It’s the ‘E Club’ that’s sick and dying: Everybody. Our grandparents, parents, siblings, children, friends, and neighbors. It’s not just people on the margins. Rich people are getting this disease. Even rich and famous people are getting this disease. Powerful politicians, too, like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently spent several days in an ICU as he battled the disease.
In the 1980s, the names of famous people suffering with and succumbing to the pandemic shocked the public into a growing awareness that a plague was truly afoot. Yet there was still a belief that the virus was a problem of “others” that would never hit home for most. This presents yet another parallel with COVID-19, with the federal government and numerous states still failing to enact shelter in place orders and countless people in states with such orders choosing to ignore them and/or protesting against them.
David and I have witnessed firsthand the effects of a plague. During the AIDS epidemic, we both lived in New York City, and we can still picture young men on the streets in the West Village – blind from cytomegalovirus, skin marred with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, frail beyond words, many experiencing dementia. These beautiful, dying men still haunt our dreams. Today, of course, the afflicted gasp their last breath hidden away in ICUs, under anesthesia and quarantined from loved ones. Only the wailing of ambulance sirens and the presence of refrigerated trucks at the delivery bays of hospitals belie the enormity of the still-growing death toll. But make no mistake, people are dying just as fast, if not faster, than we saw at the height of AIDS.
This virus is less discriminating and more easily transmittable than HIV, yet there is still denial among our leaders and much of the population. Parties at the beach, family gatherings, religious celebrations, and plenty of other events are still taking place – sometimes okayed by the state, sometimes not. And this reckless self-absorption is having deadly consequences, not only for those who are reckless but for their loved ones, their friends, and even total strangers.
Surprisingly to us, there are a lot of people who seem to think that nothing like this has ever happened before. But in reality, this is far from new ground. People are getting sick and we’re struggling to test them. People are dying and we don’t know how to stop that. Our hospitals are overflowing and medical personnel are putting their lives at risk to care for those who are ailing. And our leaders are blaming everyone but themselves for the lack of leadership in a time of extreme national crisis. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Maybe this time we’ll learn something that will help us be better prepared for the next time.