I have HIV. Amid the COVID-19 crisis sweeping the globe, people like me, people living with HIV/AIDS, are faced with a number of questions: Will our medications be delayed? Will we still be able to go to our pharmacy? What about our regular doctor’s appointments? How dangerous is COVID-19 for us compared to others? When I talked to my mom on the phone a few weeks ago, she asked a lot of these questions about me, too, curious as to how worried she should be.
Thankfully for me, Michigan health care is really trying to prioritize helping people with HIV. We can get our meds a bit faster, get more at once and can have them delivered to our door if needed.
So, at the moment at least, people living with HIV in Michigan do not seem to be at a significantly greater risk than people without HIV.
That said, there’s been a lot of media discourse about HIV and COVID-19. The major discourse has said that one is very much like the other. On the surface level, yes, the two are very similar. The virus is spreading fast, and the statistics are rising exponentially. Many of the issues are due to medical and governmental delays and roadblocks. And cis-het white people look for some “outside” group to blame for the virus.
But other than these superficial similarities, the two could not be farther apart.
HIV has largely been not only a biological disease but also a cultural stigma. Schools across the country — especially abstinence-only education program — ask students to believe that sexually-transmitted infections and diseases are not only physical but also moral: regardless of how you get HIV, you are somehow less of a person. Part of the problem with comparing HIV to COVID-19 is the “targeted groups.” While HIV was once called the 4H disease — for its frequent targets of “homosexuals,” “heroin addicts,” “hemophiliacs,” and “Haitians” — COVID-19 is known for most dangerously affecting the elderly. While no one — except for perhaps Trump’s recent request for the elderly to stay around to vote for him even if they’re terminally ill — shames people for being old, there was and remains a lot of shaming tactics around queer communities, especially for those living with HIV.
As someone who has been told to kill myself countless times because of my HIV, I guarantee people fighting COVID-19 are not getting the same kinds of death threats. Even with COVID-19 being more immediately dangerous, there’s just not the same kind of cultural stigma for it. People do not associate it with “immoral” sexual behavior. Unlike with HIV, there is already greater funding going toward COVID-19, as a result. We are not relying on a minority community, like the queer community, to help demand more funding for COVID-19 research.
I do not want to or intend to suggest that COVID-19 isn’t serious. It is. Stay at home if able and practice social isolation. But for someone who knows how the HIV epidemic went down, I can say the comparison of COVID-19 as an epidemic to HIV shows a lack of awareness of the cultural and societal implications that makes HIV rather unique.