Both Covid and HIV stoked fear and hostility across the globe and caused thousands of unnecessary deaths from Government failure to act quickly. Both exposed the enormous costs of healthcare insecurity. And both found a weakness in our strongest human desires for intimacy and connection.
There is still no cure or vaccine for HIV, though excellent treatment is available to those who have access. Gay men of my generation who lived through the 1980s are here though some combination of luck, and a crash education in virology and risk mitigation. Every virus is different – and every virus mutates. But the principles of living with a virus are universal. Like all of you, I hope 2021 brings all kinds of relief from the ravages of the pandemic. But even more so, I hope we can adopt these principles as individuals, communities and nations.
1. Listen to the experts
They won’t always be right, because knowledge increases with time and experience. The professional and social media are filled with the rarest and scariest examples, miracle cures, and opinions by over confident doctors with no direct experience or expertise. But the people working with the virus in clinical and research settings are the people who know best how to address a pandemic, we need to listen to them carefully.
2. Manage your risk
Every moment of our lives comes with some risk, and we all find our own levels of risk tolerance. Some avoided HIV with years of total celibacy, and some have avoided Covid19 with total isolation. Neither is possible or healthy for most humans. Informed risk management and harm reduction are more realistic and achievable goals. You can’t tell if someone has HIV or Covid by how they look or a negative test they took yesterday. You can assume everyone might have it, and consider how you can make every interaction safer. The risk for Covid (based on today’s knowledge) increases with 5 factors: The number of people you are exposed to. Amount of time you spend with them. The unimpeded flow of viral particles. The transfer of viral particles from your hands to your face. Not knowing your viral infection status. Managing risk and harm reduction means understanding your risks, talking about them with the people whose risks you share, and doing as much as you can to lower the risks of your actions. Every time you put on a mask, or move a conversation outside, or stand farther apart, or open a window, or get tested, you reduce the risk to yourself and your risk of harming others. When you replace “or” with “and”, you compound the protection. (P.S. You think wearing a mask every day is annoying? Try wearing a condom for a decade!)
3. Think Globally
Survival of the fittest is often misunderstood to mean the biggest or the strongest. Instead, Darwin’s “fittest” means most able to adapt. Adaptation is comprised of individual acts, but it requires communal action. We must become better at caring for each other, and all others. No one is safe until we all are safe. All of our lives are interconnected, and filled with essential workers. To succeed against Covid and whatever pathogenic threat comes next, we have to reduce the risk to ourselves and the risk we pose to others. And we must support policies, aid, and investments that help people everywhere do the same. Safe housing, clean air and water, education, nutritional sustenance and access to healthcare should be universal rights. All of us will be safer and healthier when they are.