COVID and HIV: Feels Like Deja Vu

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, many of us faced the following months with uncertainty. I noticed a lot of mistrust, misinformation, and disbelief surrounding the events that were unfolding.

Once June 5th - National HIV Long Term Survivor Day - started growing near, the theme for the year became known: Not Our First Pandemic. As a long-term survivor myself, this was almost an “a-ha” moment. I really started to see the parallels.

Confusion about virus transmission

It started hitting and people didn’t know what to do. Next thing I know, it’s not even hurricane season yet and there is no toilet paper or paper towels on the shelves. To this day, I still have no idea how this was the conclusion people came to. Regardless, fear really started to set in, and it felt like the government wasn’t taking it seriously - just like when the HIV epidemic started here in the States.

Then there was confusion around how COVID-19 was transmitted, sowing paranoia into the public. Sound familiar? This lead to a new PSA: please wash your hands. I do not need to know how many people weren’t doing this already. Anyway, this is very much like the start of the HIV epidemic, when people believed you could contract HIV from simple contact with someone living with it.

Determining vulnerable populations

Next, we found out that COVID-19 affects certain populations more than others. It’s almost like looking in a mirror. Now groups of people not on the “vulnerable populations” list started not caring about what happened with COVID-19 because it “didn’t really affect them.” Similar to how people believed, and some still believe, that HIV only affected gay men.

Not to mention that so many symptoms came with COVID-19 that, for a time, it was hard to nail down what exactly was COVID-19 and what wasn’t. Much like the early days of HIV when some were diagnosed with AIDS just by having a low CD4 count.

Mistrusting recommendations and guidelines

Of course, this led to people not trusting health officials when they warned that people needed to wear masks to help us stop transmissions. "It didn’t affect them so why should they wear an inconvenient mask? It must be a hoax."

Well, as a health educator I can tell you that I say the same thing about condoms and I hear the same excuses: “They aren’t comfortable” and “I don’t need them; I’m careful.” And guess what? COVID-19 and HIV are still prevalent with a continual finding of new cases.

Stigma and fear of testing

Then the stigma started settling in. I felt like it wasn’t even safe to clear your throat without someone being suspicious of you.

Then, if you did think you contracted COVID-19, it was tempting to keep it to yourself and not get tested so you wouldn’t have to stop going to work or going to your favorite gatherings. Much like how people living with HIV hide their statuses because they feel they will lose their jobs and/or loved ones if they get disclose their status.

Parallels between COVID-19 and HIV

So here we are: two pandemics looking at each other through a funhouse mirror, the HIV community swept up in more fear than we already felt.

We have the tools in front of us to slow this down and hopefully stop it. Vaccines are in development and will hopefully bring us to the end of the tunnel, much like the vaccine for HIV (even in my closing I managed to find another parallel). It seems the old adage still holds true: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

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