Pride and Pandemics: Learning Lessons from Previous Health Crises

By Sam Salter, HR Administrator

Pride Month this year coincides with the gradual reopening of society. While many will be celebrating a return to old freedoms, there are others who may understandably be anxious about stepping back out into the world. After all, the novel coronavirus is still in circulation. As a respiratory illness, it is unlikely ever to be eradicated and vaccines do not guarantee total protection. What lessons can we learn from the past, for example the HIV/AIDS crisis, about adjusting to life in a world with a new deadly disease which isn’t likely to disappear?

One important aspect is learning how to manage the fear of illness. Although very different in nature, when HIV/AIDS first began to circulate, there was a great degree of misunderstanding and fear about the disease. Many of those who contracted the disease were ostracised. In some cases, funeral directors even refused to bury gay men who had died from AIDS, as dramatized in the recent Channel 4 drama ‘It’s A Sin’.

Though I did not live through the worst of the 1980s HIV/AIDS public health crisis, it has nonetheless continued to have an impact on the lives of gay men of my generation. Because HIV/AIDS is a disease which may be transmitted through sexual contact, my generation has grown up knowing that certain precautions, such as regular health check-ups and safe sexual practices, are important behaviours to reduce the risk of catching and passing on the virus.

Fortunately, thanks to medical advances the threat posed by HIV/AIDS has now diminished enormously. There is medication now which means it is no longer a death sentence for those who are infected, and the stigma around the condition has decreased with greater understanding of it. The gay community is stepping out of the long shadow cast by that virus.

Clearly COVID-19 is a very different type of disease and it has never been associated with the same degree of social stigma or misinformation that characterised the early HIV/AIDS crisis. However, given the much greater intrusion into everyone’s daily life that COVID-19 restrictions have had, it seems highly likely that the fear of this illness is likely to persist.

To that end, we should all think about continuing to practise good hygiene to limit the spread of respiratory illness. Washing our hands regularly, continuing to wear face coverings when we have symptoms of respiratory illness, and limiting our social contacts when we are ill until we are feeling better are just some of the things we can all continue to do as individuals. Even if we aren’t displaying any symptoms, regular testing may be necessary to keep other people around us safe.

Perhaps most importantly, we should extend empathy and understanding to others as we try to step out from the shadow of COVID-19. Don’t assume that everyone will want to shake your hand or meet for drinks in a group straight away. It is only natural that, even if the risk of contracting the virus becomes very low, people will still be fearful of it. Everyone will readjust to ‘normal’ life at their own pace.

It is deeply saddening to think of the individual victims who are swept away by a novel and frightening disease like COVID-19 or HIV/AIDS, but there is hope. We will learn to live alongside this disease which, with any luck, will become less lethal as time passes and as more of the population is vaccinated. Hopefully many of the good habits that we have developed as a response to the pandemic will be retained in order to reduce the incidence of similar illness, such as seasonal influenza, in the future.

This Pride Month I will be thinking of the many people who lost their lives to AIDS/HIV. The message, however, is that even the most terrifying of viruses may ultimately be tamed; and that vaccinations and vigilance will help to do the same with COVID-19.