A Story of Two Pandemics
Approximately one year after COVID-19 grew into a global pandemic, I was vaccinated yesterday. That’s an amazing testament to the power of technology and human will to cure disease and save lives. At least $13 billion has been spent so far on vaccine research, production, and distribution.
As of today 554,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic a little over a year ago. Tuscon has that many. Gone in a year. Unimaginable.
As of today approximately 800,000 people have died from AIDS in the United States since that pandemic began 40 years ago. No one really knows the numbers. The disease wasn’t initially recognized, the science was less advanced then, but mostly most people didn’t care. It apparently happened to mostly gay men, and if we caught a fatal disease, that was a natural consequence of the ‘unnatural behavior’ we were engaged in.
It’s been 40 years, and there’s still no vaccine for HIV. Over the past two decades over $15 billion has been spent in research towards that vaccine. I’ve read reports that HIV research contributed to the speed of the development of the COVID vaccines. HIV is a much more difficult challenge, clearly.
But there are parallels. The willful stupidity and gross ineptitude of the Trump administration’s handling of many aspects of the response to the pandemic mirrors the Reagan administration’s persistent unwillingness to take any meaningful action on the disease for the entirety of two terms in office, despite 89,000 deaths. Press conferences where the dying was treated a joke. A president who wouldn’t even say the word ‘AIDS’ in public.
The mixture of fear, ignorance, and politics has also felt quite familiar, although the specifics differ. For a year we’ve collectively been afraid to gather, even in the most casual ways. For some of us we’ve lived 40 years with the fear that physical intimacy could be fatal. We’ve learned more along the way to be sure, about exactly what is and is not ‘safe’ (masks for one disease, condoms for another). The politics haven’t changed much: the same party that denied and ignored one pandemic and blamed its early victims did the same thing four decades later, but now cast the blame on ‘China’. And we reap the harvest in violence once again.
My life has been a lucky one when it comes to AIDS. I did not become infected, although I came out during a time when the disease was spreading in my community. I did not know many people who died, and although I know many more who have lived with the disease, there is a huge void in the gay community of men who simply aren’t there.
The reason I don’t have more gay male friends who are are much older than I am is that they aren’t there. 800,000 is about the number who live in Seattle. If half were gay, that’s Minneapolis. But somehow not so unimaginable. It happened.
I’ve seen at least two plagues in my lifetime. When I received the injection in my left arm yesterday, I could not help but think of the half million people in my country who died from the most recent plague in the past year, and the nearly million who have died of the of the other plague in the past 40.
AIDS has become a so-called ‘manageable disease’ today. At $1800–4500 per month for treatment, just how ‘manageable’ depends on your access to health insurance or government programs to gain access to the drugs necessary to stay alive. And the drugs don’t work for everyone, or all the time, and not without a price. Living for decades on what is effectively chemotherapy takes its toll, even if the newer medications are more targeted and have fewer side effects. And you can never stop taking them. $25,000/year for drugs to keep you alive for the rest or your life. The alternative is that you will die.
I paid nothing for my COVID-19 vaccine, and never presented an insurance card. They looked at my ID, basically took my word that I was eligible, and gave me the injection.
It took longer to chat with the nurse and wait the required 15 minutes outside than it took to get the vaccine.
I’m looking forward to the day soon when my husband and I are both fully vaccinated and can go to a restaurant again, when it feels safe to be out in public. When sitting indoors doesn’t feel dangerous. The pleasure of these simple acts is something we have missed dearly.
I’m still waiting for the HIV vaccine. I’m still waiting for the day when simple acts of pleasure and intimacy are not life-threatening.