The HIV/AIDS crisis, which dominated news coverage beginning in the 1980s with its terrifying death rates, furious street activism and muscular grassroots response that built a national array of service organizations, has now been eclipsed by a new viral threat.
In less than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more Americans than have died from HIV and AIDS in 40 years: roughly 740,000 compared to 700,000.
This grim milestone is a lot for me to absorb. I have devoted my entire adult life to fighting HIV/AIDS, personally and professionally. I am a gay man who was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, only weeks after the HIV antibody test became available. At the time, I was 24 years old and living in West Hollywood, California — an epicenter of that gathering plague.
I didn’t need to be told my diagnosis was a death sentence. That was in plain evidence throughout my close-knit gay community. My favorite bartender, the teller at my local bank, my workout partner at the gym, all disappeared with the suddenness of a horrific rapture. My prayers to somehow survive were answered with the death of people terribly close to me. I have been a voice for people living with HIV ever since.
There is much to compare and contrast between HIV and COVID, but let me lead with this: Tragedy isn’t a contest. There is plenty of misery to go around. More than a million families in this country are grieving a profound loss from one of these epidemics or the other.
My encompassing worldview is informed by the maturity that survival has bestowed upon me, but it is an evolution that hasn’t come easily. Activism is a selfish business. It has to be. For 35 years I have been laser focused on convincing people of the threat of HIV while promoting compassion for those living with the virus. Only with the deadliest years of AIDS in the rearview mirror, and with COVID figures surging higher each day, am I reminded that it isn’t always about me and the disease that changed my life.
While it is true that HIV struck the gay community with wrenching precision — imagine if all 740,000 COVID deaths happened, say, only to people who lived in your state — there are commonalities between the two epidemics that are both frustrating and instructive.
In both cases, our government made choices that caused people to die unnecessarily, either through inaction or ineptitude. Both epidemics disproportionately affect the marginalized and the undervalued among us, whether they be gay, racial minorities, drug addicts, old or infirm. The failures of our health care and public health systems have driven the mortality rates even higher.
Still, this new COVID milestone also presents a collaborative opportunity. Just as people living with HIV have built powerful coalitions like the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus, coronavirus patient-centered groups, like the Long COVID Alliance, have been formed recently to address their medical, social and policy needs. People living with HIV have a great deal of institutional wisdom in that regard to share with them.
HIV advocacy groups understand how to build networks of people living with a chronic disease from scratch. We’ve also known the desperation of searching for effective treatments and alerting people to the long-term effects of our condition. And yes, we are science and fact based, resisting the curious allure of folk cures and wackadoodles, and we are always pushing researchers for the next generation of medications.
Surviving HIV comes at a price that I am glad to pay. I simply need to keep giving back. In this case, I will extend a hand to those affected by a tragically similar epidemic and work to achieve our common goals, together.
Mark S. King (email@example.com) is a Baltimore resident who received the 2020 GLAAD Media Award for his My Fabulous Disease website (marksking.com), which chronicles his life as a long-term survivor of HIV.