The past few weeks have felt like the early days of the AIDS crisis on super-fast-forward.
I remember when I was 9 or 10 years old I heard about a mysterious “gay cancer” on the news. Hearing about it stewed anxiety in me, a feeling that — sooner or later — the disease was “coming to get me.” The thought that a deadly virus could simply emerge terrified me. My ignorance and naivete focused on the fear rather than reality, even as I met early victims of the disease who didn’t yet know they would be very sick.
The following three decades of my life were marked by a steadily increasing awareness, smoldering fear, and increased caution. The growing dread slowly turned into debilitating panic attacks which culminated in a sort of emotional breakdown in 2005. Terrorized by the mere thought of a deadly disease, I was too afraid to be tested. Finally, I summoned the courage to be tested and then, suddenly, it was over.
My test was negative, and that was that.
Nearly overnight, for me, HIV became something that remained terrible in concept, but now seemed a less personal threat. After decades of irrational avoidance and denial, I began to educate myself about the virus — something that I had avoided for nearly three decades. The once-deadly virus was slowly becoming more manageable, a curiosity but no longer an invisible, murderous monster lurking behind my every move. Along with my evolution, the science of treating HIV evolved. The virus was no longer considered the death sentence it once was. Stigma and fear about the disease, unfortunately, remained.
Although my personal paranoia and fear has subsided, I still carry residual (and, admittedly, irrational) fear from living through that experience. The emergency, virulence, and subsequent evolution of treatment of the AIDS pandemic played out slowly over 25 years of my life.
I realize, in these days of coronavirus, I retain some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder from the first pandemic that I survived. The current one has played out with equal ferocity and emotional tumult, but rather than 25 years, it’s occurred over the past three months. My emotional response has been the same. Just like during the AIDS crisis, I felt an immediate sense of panic that manifested in an often unwelcome and sometimes ridiculed persistence to warn everyone I know that could possibly be impacted. I relived the emotional urgency of sensing the impending danger before many others. I scrambled to find reliable information in a tsunami of conflicting data and news colored by politics, ignorance, and indifference. I re-experienced the obsession with abstinence and physical separation. I fought the urge to feel subsumed by the enormity of my fear.
My emotional battle scars from the last pandemic are still tender, however I am resilient. Despite the many similarities of these early days of pandemic, this time is different. This time, it’s not a marginalized group of gay and bi men who were increasingly ignored by mainstream society. The virus, this time, has very quickly impacted everyone and every corner of the globe. Madonna, a vocal advocate in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, referred to coronavirus as “the great equalizer,” an opportunistic virus that maliciously and indiscriminately infects people whether they are young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, or straight. More than once it has occurred to me to say, “Welcome, world, to the gay reality of the past 40 years!”
Now, however, isn’t the time for sarcasm. Just like during the AIDS crisis, the time for responsibility, mobilization, and action is right now. The time for healing through conjecture, humility, and blame will come much later.
Alex Bitterman is Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Architecture and Design at SUNY Alfred State.