Okay, before the jump, how about a peppy tune:
I was texting with a friend over the weekend. He and his family are sheltered-in-place a bit north of San Francisco, and we were catching up on how both our families are doing in these weird times.* Then, those human niceties resolved, I began to wax philosophical about the weirdness of the times themselves.
I honestly thought that AIDS was gonna be the worst pandemic of my lifetime. Shows you what I knows….
The truth is, it is WAY to early to tell which pandemic—COVID-19 or AIDS—will turn out to be “the worst” of my lifetime. To the best of our current understanding, HIV is much, much deadlier than SARS-CoV-2**. On the other hand, SARS-CoV-2 is much, much more communicable.
So which mortality equation is going to end up being worse? High percentage mortality with lower percentage infected, or higher percentage infected with lower percentage mortality?
Doesn’t matter. It’s all fucking heart-breaking. Especially with the eerie parallels between AIDS and COVID-19.
Honestly, these parallels extend beyond the two-point comparison I’m pushing here. In The Conversation, Carla Tsampiras (Senior Lecturer in Medical and Health Humanities at the University of Cape Town) reminds us:
As the spread of diseases has shown over the centuries – whether smallpox in the Cape Colony in the early 18th century and late 19th century, the global influenza epidemic of 1918 or COVID-19 today – the causative agents of illness do not care for our assumptions about our alleged superiority on the planet, nor do they discriminate. They also do not recognise the structures and symbols people use to try and shore up their fears and create a sense of security.
What histories of past epidemics show is that the biggest danger during pandemics is not necessarily the causative agents, but how people respond to them. There are obviously significant differences between the COVID-19 pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, and the pandemics from beyond living memory. Still, there are sufficient similarities to remind us that pandemics act on the social fault lines, hierarchies, and inequalities that people create, globally and locally.
So this particular strain of history has been done repeating for centuries.
But AIDS and COVID-19 are the two epidemics in my lived memory, so that’s where my focus is for the nonce. Besides, I spent enough years learning about the AIDS epidemic that I have been awash in deja vu of late.
Remember how I said I knew a little bit of something about epidemiology? That’s because I was planning to write my dissertation on artistic responses to the AIDS epidemic. Even though my main focus was on art***, the only way to discuss that art responsibly in its cultural context was to learn some 101-level stuff about virology, public health, medical discrimination and so on.
So watching COVID-19 this month, with that kind of background knowledge?
The resonance, it burns.
Which brings me back to the heart-breaking non-issue of which mortality equation will eventually total to a higher number. Writing in Buzzfeed News, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mark Schoofs reminds us all of the core truth here:
Measured in time, that is very fast. Measured in deaths — or in economic devastation — it is achingly slow.
My greatest prayer is that when all is said and done, the COVID-19 crisis will be addressed with efficacy and responsibility so that the numbers are less than I am fearing. In fact, I would love to look back at some years’ distance and be cringing with mild embarrassment at my irresponsibility in making analogies between COVID and AIDS.
* As well as can be expected. Health, home, safety: TONS to be grateful for.
** Yup, that’s the official name.
*** Broadly defined: music, film, literature. Probably the only type of art I wasn’t gonna talk about was the art usually called “art.” (Full disclosure: I suck at discussing the visual arts with any greater sophistication than “Me like.”)
Image credit: Needpix. Public domain.