Greetings, dear readers. Let me be clear right from the get-go, that there are very reliable sources of medical information about the current covid 19 virus, and I am not one of them. Also, that the situations people are facing right now vary widely depending on who you are, where you are, what resources you have… and so much more. Your mileage may vary, and all that.
But… I keep thinking, in this current situation, about what it was like to be a young non-heterosexual as the HIV virus spread around the world, and the things I learned then, that inform me now. So just in case this turns out to be helpful for others, here are some key things I learned in the period before HIV was called HIV. When we did not understand how it spread, we did not know how to dependably protect ourselves, there was no treatment–and people we knew, people like us, began to die.
- viruses don’t care who you are or how you feel. Viruses travel just as happily between friends or lovers as between enemies. That sweet belief my parents express that I represent no risk to them because I share their DNA? Not a thing. The idea that this is a Chinese virus? Viruses have no nationality, they stalk the earth self-replicating, and that’s it. The appalling racism of white Australians like myself to people of Asian appearance, or folk who run Chinese (Japanese, Korean… who’s paying close attention?) restaurants for a living? Just as rubbish, just as cruel, as racism in any other time or setting. Nothing logical going on there anytime.
- viruses only care what you do. You either do things that make it easier for them to travel or you don’t. It isn’t a moral judgment, it’s a blunt fact. You can be sharing a virus without knowing you have it. You will pass it on unless you act appropriately–by which I mean, you act as if you have it already, and ask yourself if you would act this way if you knew for sure you had it.
- prejudice gets in the way of better outcomes for everyone. While HIV was seen as “a gay disease” (in the more developed world), there were plenty of places that treated everyone thought to be “gay” badly, whether they had HIV or not. But treating gay people (and sex workers, and injecting drug users) as expendable, where that happened, just meant the virus got to travel further, faster. People who needed to be tested were too scared to get tested because they had to face this prejudice. When it reached Africa and Asia, this misinformation and prejudice took new forms but continued to create similar problems for humans and opportunities for the virus to replicate and spread.
- being scared won’t protect you. Being informed and deciding how to act, plus sticking to it all the time–those things protect you. Being too scared to think just gets in your way and puts you at risk of irrational behaviour that places you and others at risk. Accepting someone else’s preparedness to do risky things because you’re not prepared to stand up and say what you think makes sense, places you both at risk.
- new skills can help you. I came from a conservative family. HIV meant that I had to acquire new skills. How to talk about sex, in some detail, in advance, more openly and frankly. How to negotiate about risk and protection. The people I learned from were people who had better skills about that than I did, including sex workers and BDSM practitioners. I was just a timid teenager, but the generosity of people who did all they could to help us keep one another safe helped me decide to learn. This time round I’m helping people problem solve their way into teleconferencing!!
- Context is important, and so is gratitude. I remember listening to a woman with HIV talk about how much easier she thought it was for someone more or less like me to deal with negotiating HIV protection, than it had been for her to tell her regular partner that she’d cheated, and now there were sexually transmitted infections to deal with. Fair call. In general, the suffering of this earth is very unequally distributed. Those who already are vulnerable, are likely to suffer so much more than lucky folk like me with a home, savings and food, living in a country with relatively affordable health care. Right now people in India are dealing with this as floods destroy homes and livelihoods. Right now the risk to First Nations people in my country is so much bigger than to white folk like me. Right now I have friends who have lost their incomes and others who may well die if infected because they are already so unwell. Right now people are dying in Africa with nothing like the health care of Europe or Australia. So the ethical thing for me to do is appreciate that this isn’t all about me and the risks I face. It’s about the risks other people face and how I can be part of lessening the risk to them.
- we need one another. We need support from one another. We need to pull together. We need practical mutual aid. The [other] challenges we face, including the climate crisis, have not gone away. To address the covid crisis we need to build stronger relationships, even if at physical distance. And for the future of all life on earth, we will need those relationships and more. So let’s not allow this whole physical distancing in order to protect one another and make sure health systems are available for those who really need them, get in the way of building relationships.