World AIDS Day: COVID-19 and the precedent of HIV

I have grown tired of hearing people describe 2020 as “unprecedented.” On the one hand, the phrase is overused. On the other, much of what we have seen in the last year is not new to the HIV community.

Many longtime survivors of HIV, like myself, have been re-traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic, because this is not unprecedented. We have been here before.

HIV set many precedents.

Just look at who President Trump and President-elect Biden turned to for leading the COVID-19 fight.

Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force includes Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Biden’s COVID-19 advisory team includes Dr. Eric Goosby and Loyce Pace. Each of them has spent many years working on HIV.

It is no wonder political leaders look to HIV experts, given just how precedented these times actually are.

But it is not just political leaders who should look to the HIV community for leadership and guidance. Our country can learn a lot from the four decades of precedents laid out by the HIV epidemic.

That is particularly important today, World AIDS Day. This day calls us to reflect on the lessons learned from the HIV epidemic, acknowledge achievements, support all of us living with or vulnerable to HIV, and remember those who have died.

First, the HIV community knows well we must protect each other using the best scientific information.

Even before HIV was identified, community groups were handing out guides to safer sex. As we learned more about how HIV spread, our prevention strategies changed with it.

And they keep changing. We now know that a daily pill, a regimen called preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, prevents HIV. Antiretroviral therapies, or ART, can help us live normal, healthy life spans. And, the evidence is undeniably clear that undetectable means untransmittable, or U=U. That means those of us with an undetectable viral load — the amount of the virus in our blood — cannot pass the virus along to our sexual partners.

Between ART, PrEP and U=U, we have the tools to prevent all deaths and new transmissions of HIV, which is truly something to celebrate on World AIDS Day.

When it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19, we now know a lot more now than we did in March. We all now know a cloth mask is effective, and that we must avoid indoor gathering, keep our physical distance and limit the number of in-person interactions.

Social distancing is the best strategy to avoid COVID transmission. Yet humans are social, and the measures that can best keep us safe could lead to isolation and depression. So the second lesson from the HIV epidemic is that our survival depends on caring for each other during this crisis.

In response to the HIV epidemic, our community — often led by queer women — built food banks and visited people who could not leave their homes. We created support groups and hosted blood drives.

With COVID, we must create spaces where people can be social while also being safe, like virtual game nights and regular phone and video calls with friends. This is particularly true as we head into the depths of winter and gathering outdoors becomes more difficult. Isolation will set in, so we really need to care for one another.

Finally, we must never stop advocating. Nothing was ever gained for people living with or vulnerable to HIV that we did not have to fight for. That tenacity is needed now.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, a bill that if signed into law would help ordinary Americans, essential works, state and local governments, small businesses and nonprofits. It would invest $75 million in COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and isolation measures.

The U.S. Senate, under the direction of Sen. Mitch McConnell, has refused to touch the bill. It has been 200 days since the House passed that bill. More than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases have been reported each day since Nov. 3, and we are rapidly heading toward 300,000 deaths.

Each of us must contact our senators, and demand the Senate act swiftly.

Approximately 730,000 Americans — and over 32 million worldwide — have died because of HIV. My hope this World AIDS Day is that the world will learn from the precedents the HIV epidemic laid out. Because if we learn from these precedents, we can save lives and the COVID-related death toll will come nowhere near that of HIV.