This month I am here to give you a grandfather-style rant. (Stay off my lawn, kids!) At the ripe old age of 49 – that’s something like 102 in gay years – I feel confident in offering up my wisdom for the younger generations, many of whom may dismiss it. But one of the perks of advancing age is no longer caring as much what others think, so here it goes. Buckle up, kids!
I have heard a couple people in the gay social media world discussing the COVID-19 outbreak and comparing this current global pandemic to the AIDS crises. This is like comparing apples to Volkswagens, and I’m here to tell you why.
When it was first identified in 1981, HIV (originally called GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was associated almost exclusively with gay men and intravenous drug users. Being a (mainly) sexually transmitted disease, HIV carried with it a stigma of being “the gay cancer,” and became yet another weapon that bigoted straight people used against us. It was used as an insult, as well as a tool of fear, to keep others “on the straight and narrow,” so to speak. For many straight people at the time, the revelation that someone was gay brought with it the idea that they probably also had AIDS. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t true; the stigma of association became firmly entrenched, and it persists to this day.
Right now, the coronavirus is estimated to have a 3.4% fatality rate. We can compare this to the nearly 100% mortality rate for AIDS during the 1980s and see that we are dealing with really quite different outcomes. Today, we have robust treatments for HIV/AIDS that can bring the virus down to undetectable levels, effectively preventing the possibility of transmission from an infected person to those who are not. We even have PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a medication that, when taken daily, can protect the user from contracting HIV from sexual activity by a factor of 99%, making it nearly 20% more effective than using condoms. (That said: please don’t stop using condoms. PrEP does nothing to prevent other STIs, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, many of which are now on the rise, and we are even seeing the emergence of drug-resistant strains of those diseases, such as the ominously named super gonorrhea.)
In the 80’s, though, there were no treatments for HIV, let alone preventative medicines, which meant that a person who contracted the virus literally faced a death sentence. An entire generation of gay men were wiped off the face of the earth while the United States government turned a blind eye. The government even joked about it. Our community is still reeling from the devastating effects of that lack of action.
The coronavirus, however, is far easier for anyone to catch, regardless of sexual activity, identity, race, or gender, and this removes the specific judgements that are sometimes bundled with an HIV diagnosis. COVID-19 is not limited to those who are often considered to be “socially undesirable;” it can be caught by literally anyone at any time, and is even predicted to become a normal fixture of what we have come to call “the cold and flu season.”
None of this is meant to downplay the seriousness of the current pandemic. Even though the fatality rate is far lower than that of AIDS, the impact of the coronavirus is staggering. Already we are seeing the effects of “panic hoarding” leaving entire aisles at grocery stores picked clean, like some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape. At least it can seem that way, from the perspective of privilege.
For many, this may be the first time we have encountered such a crisis. As the time of this writing, in my home state of California, many counties are calling for residents to shelter-in-place and close all “non-essential” businesses for extended periods. The move is designed to help “flatten the curve”, but it is still devastating to those whose livelihoods rely on income from those businesses. My own store has been affected; we have been told that we will remain closed for at least three weeks, putting us and many others in a very precarious position, since creditors and landlords will still expect to get paid even when the money has dried up.
While there is a lot that is feeding into our collective anxiety, we need to remember that we can be proactive and take some level of control in this chaotic time. Times like these require that we come together, a reality that at first glance seems at odds with the mandate of “social distancing,” but even in these conditions we can unite and bond in this shared experience. Now is the time for us to remind each other about best practices.
While my store was open to the public, I was in the position to engage directly with my local community, and I had spoken with many about this situation. Many had questions or simply needed to connect with others and process the craziness that characterizes the current time. We shared stories and reminded each other that we are all human and are all in this together. When things get scary, we need to be well-informed, but we also need to remain grounded. While some might feel that complete isolation is the only answer, most recognize that commonsense precautions are the key to staying safe while also living one’s life.
When it comes down to it, the old wisdom is the best wisdom: cover your cough (with the inside of your elbow, not your hand), stay home if you are feeling ill, work from home if you are able to do so, refrain from touching your face, try to maintain a 6-foot distance from other people, disinfect surfaces regularly, and above all else: wash your hands. Properly.
Handwashing for a full 20 seconds is the current directive. Most have suggested singing the song “Happy Birthday” twice as a means to ensure taking the time necessary to adequately wash them, but with a little ingenuity we can use this time to reinforce our spiritual practices. As magical practitioners we can use this mundane activity as a personal trigger for our magical work. While we wash our hands each time we can inwardly focus on specific energy-states, such as those achieved by grounding and alignment, as well as any magical goals that we wish to achieve. Saying a little spell or prayer while we do will only further reinforce our magical attention, directing it to those places that are best for the manifestation of our wills.
For those who simply want a Pagan song to sing while washing their hands for the aforementioned 20 seconds instead of singing “Happy Birthday” (again!), I might suggest the singing this much beloved chorus three times: “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna.” You’re welcome.
While the HIV and COVID-19 crises are worlds apart, they share in one key area: both strike fear and uncertainty in the hearts of people from all walks of life. The COVID-19 pandemic will result in a different set of consequences than what came from the HIV/AIDS pandemic over the past forty years. It has characteristics that are unique and that pose specific challenges to our healthcare systems. Italy has had to consider some pretty harsh guidelines for how to offer care to certain people (though they have not stopped treating the elderly, as one false viral post claimed) and it is possible that the US will follow suit.
While we all learn to grapple with the latest developments and changes to our lifestyles, let us take the time to remember that we all depend on one another, and we may be dealing with these changes in our own ways. Let’s not shame each other for our individual choices. It is possible to practice commonsense social distancing and still go outside, even to meet with others if we take reasonable precautions. If COVID-19 is indeed here to stay, then we will have to learn how to live with it and treat it appropriately, instead of trying to hide from life entirely.
Is this the new normal? I hope not – I’m almost out of bread and toilet paper.
Editor’s note: The Wild Hunt continues to cover the impact of COVID-19 on the Pagan community. For the latest updates, see our special coverage page. The Centers for Disease Control maintain a current list of guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here.