Saturday, April 4, 2020

Coming of age in the age of AIDS

Pardon me if I am not impressed by your new virus...

If I seem less than scared by the Corona Virus, it may be because of my age.  Not only am I a lot closer to shuffling off this mortal coil than many folks, but I came of age in an era where I pretty much expected to die before I was 40, anyway.

The media and politicians are scared to death of the Corona Virus.  And it is no wonder why - it is easy to catch, and pretty fatal for older, infirm people, such as politicians and media moguls.  It is AIDS for the ruling class.  Probably spread by handling large sums of money.

When AIDs or HIV was first discovered, there was no cure - and wasn't for over a decade.   And what's worse, no one seemed to care too much.  After all, it only affected "other people" so why get concerned?   Some Republicans sounded the alarm, and wanted to "quarantine" all those found to be HIV-positive.  Only later did we find out why - those same Republicans were having gay sex "on the down low" and basically wanted to make sure the tricks, hustlers, and Congressional pages they were having sex with, were disease-free.

Back in the late 1980's, Mark and I went to see the "AIDS Quilt" on the national mall.   People who lost loved ones made quilts in memory of their lost friends, lovers, and spouses.   The quilt spread from the Washington monument to the Capitol.  It was a pretty sobering experience. They stopped bringing it to the national mall because it had grown too large to exhibit.   In fact, when we saw it, it only represented part of the overall number of panels.

More than 700,000 people have died from HIV in the United States - and more than that die worldwide every single year.   A staggering 32 million have been killed by HIV, worldwide, since it first spread.  To date, about 60,000 people have died from the Corona Virus worldwide, about 7,000 so far in the US - although the death toll is climbing every day.

Now granted, it is a lot harder to catch the HIV virus.  You have to sort of set out to get it, by practicing unsafe sex or sharing needles with other drug users.  In the early days, you could get it from a tainted blood transfusion, but since then, all blood is tested for HIV (at least in the States) before it is administered.  But back then, if you caught it, it was a death sentence.  100% fatality rate.

The Corona Virus is a lot easier to catch - someone coughs or sneezes in your face, and you've got it.  It is about as easy to catch as the common cold - which is another Corona Virus.  But the survival rate is far greater than zero percent.  It may be years before we know - when all the data is in - but it seems to be well over 90% for younger, healthy people.  For folks over 60 with pre-existing health conditions (Hey! That's me!) the survival rates are a lot lower.

But coming of age in the age of HIV perhaps influenced my thinking - and that of my husband.  In the late 1970's and early 1980's, it just started to become socially acceptable to be "out" with your sexuality.  That didn't mean, of course, that life was peachy-keen.  As I noted before, when we moved to Washington, there were still "gay-bashings" going on, and by that I don't mean someone punching you in the face, but people being beaten to death with baseball bats.  Those were scary times.

The irony of that era was that it was OK to "come out" as gay, but the bad news was, well, if you have sex you'll DIE.   What irony.   Be as gay as you want - but don't be.

It killed everyone, young and old, fit and infirm.  Many of the victims were just starting out in life - still in their 20's.  HIV didn't discriminate.  It may have been harder to catch, but once you got it, it devastated your body.

An entire generation was raised with this specter of death.  You heard about friends "getting it" and getting sick. And every day, a new celebrity was diagnosed with it.  It wasn't until later on that this "drug cocktail" acted as a cure of sorts, although if you got the virus, chances are, complications from it might shorten your life somewhat.

Today, the landscape has changed with regard to HIV.  It is still around, but new infections seem to decline every year.  I see younger dudes who think they are immune - and for all I know, maybe they are.  They are taking this medicine called "Prep" that is claimed to prevent the spread of the virus, safe sex or not.  These younger guys have no fear.  Even if they get the disease, there is a cure, right?

Well, sort of, but not really.

But getting back to topic, I guess that is one reason I am not overly alarmed about this new virus. Living with the specter of death is nothing new to me.   And from what I can see, the survival rates of this look pretty damn decent compared to HIV circa 1990.  And just like with HIV, when people practice "safe social distancing" the spread will decline over time, just as safe sex and resulted in a dramatic decline in HIV infections.   In other words, we've been down this road before and know how it pans out.

In fact, all epidemics pretty much pan out this way.  You can call it 'herd immunity' or whatever, but these viruses tend to flare up and then flare out - often very quickly. And in the pantheon of deadly viruses, the Corona Virus of 2019 isn't going to go down in history as the most virulent or deadly.  A lot of the people dying from it were, in fact, not far from death to begin with.

But perhaps something good will come of this - maybe our reaction to this virus will have us better prepared if a more virulent and deadly virus hits humanity down the road - as one is sure to do, in the future.

That's an awful lot of quilts.