Pandemics are powerful phenomena. One moment, life proceeds per usual routines, and the next, we find ourselves scrambling over toilet paper. The coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected our lives in every way and preventing transmission, while far from assured, appears to be straightforward.
An equally daunting challenge, however, is about how we are going to interact with one another as this crisis unfolds.
I remember a similar dynamic in another pandemic I lived through. The first cases of HIV/AIDS were reported when I was 19 years old. In those days, the modes of transmission were not widely known, prompting widespread panic. We saw a proliferation of people wearing masks and gloves in public. People hoarding supplies. Acts of blatant discrimination and hatred abounded.
Like today, the White House was more harmful than helpful. In fact, then-President Reagan did not mention the words HIV/AIDS publicly until 1985, four years after the first cases were reported. In other words, we were on our own.
‘On Weekends, I Attended Funerals’
For the next dozen years, HIV/AIDS became my vocation and avocation. By day, I directed a project in Oakland Chinatown that offered everything from prevention/education to clinical care. After work, I facilitated support groups, delivered meals and meds to friends and clients, provided outreach at bathhouses and sex clubs, and took to the streets in protest.
On weekends, I attended funerals.
While my friends back home were getting married and starting families, this pandemic defined my 20s as a decade of grief and loss. I was 26 years old when, after being asked for the 18th time, I promised myself that I would never be a pallbearer again. When I was 28, I had to decide whether to attend Michael’s or George’s funeral, because they were happening at the same time. At 29, I stopped recording in my journal the names of friends, lovers, clients and colleagues who had died. The last entry—Robbie—was my 175th.
It was an unimaginably hard time—one that I would not wish on anyone. How ironic that my sons, who are now in their 20s, are facing a pandemic, the ramifications of which are still unknown. Rafa is working at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, arguably the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. Santi just returned home to finish the remainder of his semester online. Given what I had lived through, what guidance would I give them?
When fear and “othering” are the norms, how might we act with love in the time of Corona?
Practice Social Solidarity
“Social distancing,” the term used to describe proximity restrictions to prevent transmission of viruses, is a disruption of our cultural and social norms, and many people are still struggling with that. My family, friends, and hula brothers normally greet each other with hugs and kisses. We join hands in prayer.
New greetings, such as the elbow and foot bump, are becoming acceptable and commonplace, but it’s going to take some time before we reach the level of connection, respect, and joy that a hug, handshake, or kiss express. If social distancing leads to isolation, fear and othering, this is a condition that can be as dangerous as the virus itself.
In the midst of practicing social distancing, it is important to practice social solidarity. In his NY Times op-ed, Eric Klinenberg writes:
In addition to social distancing, societies have often drawn on another resource to survive disasters and pandemics: social solidarity, or the interdependence between individuals and across groups. This an essential tool for combating infectious diseases and other collective threats. Solidarity motivates us to promote public health, not just our own personal security. It keeps us from hoarding medicine, toughing out a cold in the workplace or sending a sick child to school. It compels us to let a ship of stranded people dock in our safe harbors, to knock on our older neighbor’s door.
Stories of social solidarity are emerging everywhere. My friend Vonnie gift-wrapped rolls of toilet paper and delivered them to neighbors with a note saying, “If we can ease a worry or lend a hand—a cup of sugar or flour, some relief meds or tissue, cleaning products, yes, even TP, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’ll get through this together.”
Several of my clients and fellow consultants have reached out to me to discuss how we can support each other through the coming months of canceled gigs and financial hardship.
Friends who run organizations and businesses are doing the right thing by enacting compassionate policies for their employees.
Neighbors in Italy are singing from their windows to counter their isolation.
All of these examples prove that, even though we have to practice physical distance, we don’t have to be socially distant. Social solidarity reminds us that we are not alone.
Could This Be a Turning Point for You?
It was just another night out in San Francisco with my cousin Allister. I was 23 years old and starting my career in the corporate management program at Macy’s. Allister mentioned that we were going to visit Billy before dinner. My heart raced. Billy was a model with thick brown hair, deep blue eyes, an arresting smile. I had a crush on Billy the moment I laid eyes on him seven years earlier.
When we arrived at his apartment, I expected Billy to answer the door as he always did, with his megawatt smile and perfect hair, surrounded by equally beautiful people, music blaring in the background. Instead, the place was quiet and dark. We walked down the hall to his bedroom, and there was Billy, emaciated and covered with lesions. It had been days since anyone had visited.
I left that apartment resolved that I would no longer pursue a career at Macy’s, and set my course on community service. Even though I never had the opportunity to tell Bill Richmond how he changed my life for good, I hope he knows that his passion for joy and beauty live on through me.
What do these times have to teach you? How might this pandemic inform your life’s work? How you are leading your life? No matter how old or young you are, keep your eyes, ears and heart open, and be ready to receive some deep lessons that can impact your life for good.
‘Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear’
The scripture 1 John 4:18 became one of my guiding lights during the pandemic: “Perfect fear casts out all love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” As a young gay man coming up in the AIDS years, there was so much to fear. I had to navigate relationships, media hysteria, concerned family and friends, and the prospect of surviving this epidemic and growing old alone.
When Father John McNeill delivered his sermon on this scripture, my perspective shifted, and I began to seek out moments of perfect love in the midst of the sadness, chaos and fear. Singing hymns with Tom in his final days at Coming Home Hospice sustained me. Making brownie sundaes with Scott to keep his weight up sustained me. Leaving notes of appreciation on my colleagues’ desks after another long day at work sustained me. Dancing with Gerard sustained me.
We can practice moments of perfect love in many ways. A simple wave or smile to a stranger can make a difference. Thanking folks at the grocery store, police folk, first responders and health-care providers who are working extra hard to provide for our needs makes a difference. We all have elders in our lives, whether they are our own relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers and mentors. Calling on them regularly so they don’t feel othered and isolated makes a difference.
In spite of the lack of support from the world at large during those early years of HIV/AIDS, our small community made it through by holding on to hope and conquering our fear with perfect acts of love.
I don’t know how this pandemic will unfold. But I do know that the entire global community is in high alert. We have the power, choice, and potential to practice social solidarity, embrace turning points and treat each other with moments of perfect love.
The scientists, researchers and health-care providers will find ways to vanquish this virus and heal our bodies. It is up to the rest of us to vanquish the pandemic of fear and hatred, and heal our souls.
Questions for Reflection and Consideration
Make a list of the elders in your life. What can you do today to let them know that they are loved, valued, and cared for?
Think about what you are reading and sharing on social media. How might you shift from an orientation of fear and othering to one of love and belonging?
What is one thing you want to learn or do at this time of retreat and reflection? Some things on my list: Compose a Hawaiian chant. Clean out that dreaded closet. Read two books. Cook. Write, write, write.
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