Two Pandemics: Parallels and Sources of Inspiration

Covid-19 USNS Comfort hospital ship arrives in NYC.

Drawing parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics

(or how HIV and AIDS has inspired creative work capturing Coronavirus and Covid-19)

Several people, on different occasions, have asked me to talk about similarities and differences between the pandemic of the eighties (or the eighties’ “plague,” how Larry Kramer called it) and the current, Coronavirus pandemic. While I’ve covered HIV and AIDS for almost twenty years, I’ve just started capturing the present pandemic, for obvious reasons.

I took the above image at the end of February, captivated by the mask. Now, in hind sight, it reminds me of the plague doctor mask of centuries ago, and a sign of what was to come this very year.

I believe that there are a few parallels between HIV and AIDS, and Coronavirus and Covid-19:

  • as with any extreme situation, it appears that the initial response from those in charge is to say nothing, officially, about the impending threat; in the case of HIV and AIDS, this silence and lack of response and/or acknowledgment lasted for about four years; in the case of Coronavirus, only a few weeks; still, the initial response or reaction is the same, and that’s to say nothing….
  • also, like any other extreme situation, both HIV and Coronavirus divide communities into “us” vs. “them” in many ways
  • the virus, HIV or Coronavirus, affects each and every aspect of people’s lives in most tremendous, sometimes terrifying ways
  • isolation, maybe in slightly different forms, is also a common element, in particular during the dark years of the AIDS pandemic, as well as during the dark months of Covid-19

In the movie Philadelphia, Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew Beckett, talks about “a social death that precedes the actual physical one.”

Oftentimes long-term AIDS survivors find it difficult, to this day, to watch movies like Philadelphia, because it reminds them of the hopelessness of those days. Award-winning, legally blind photographer and long-term AIDS survivor Kurt Weston mentioned that to me, years ago, during one of our interviews for his biography, Journeys Through Darkness. He also shared his own feeling of isolation, as he experienced it during his first bout with pneumonia:

“During his first hospitalization with pneumonia, doctors placed Weston in an isolation ward. […] [He] woke up hooked to machines, not sure what was happening to him, [and] opened his eyes only to realize that people wearing masks, gloves and suits were staring down at him.”

Read more about “No Surrender” image in Shelter in Place: Art & Isolation article published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine
  • but there’s also the idea of coming together, as individuals, to fight the pandemic
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a song performed, usually by a Broadway actor, at the annual AIDS Walk NY opening ceremony. The message is to never let those affected by HIV to “walk alone,” and to be there for them and unite in walking, working, together, in order to fight the virus. Similarly, when it comes to Coronavirus, while we need to “socially distance” (I still believe that a better term would have been to “physically distance”) we need to unite in walking alone, by ourselves, in order to fight the virus.
  • another parallel might be found captured in signs of acknowledgment and symbolic thank-you messages sent to those on the forefront of fighting the pandemic(s): Empire State Building displays its red colors on World AIDS Day (the Red Ribbon represents AIDS awareness); similarly, at the height of Covid-19 in NYC, ESB displayed its “siren” colors (red and white) as a “thank you” to Covid-19 first-responders

For more about pandemic-inspired artwork, please feel free to check out the free online course Making Meaning in a Pandemic course offered by Canisius College of Arts & Science.

  • other parallels: the stories of these two pandemics are not over; a few years ago there was an AIDS awareness campaign called “Not Over.” It still rings true when it comes to HIV and AIDS; now, also to Coronavirus and Covid-19.

And yet, one day, I hope that we will be able to come out from under the heavy domes of these pandemics. With that in mind, here’s an image I created inspired by the present pandemic:

I also hope that you are well and stay safe, and, as always, thank you for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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