There have been many parallels drawn between this pandemic and the AIDS pandemic that began in 1981. And in fact while many obvious differences exist there are many valid comparisons. Moreover, there are some common threads that run through crises involving a communicable disease and here were a few from this writer back in February 2020. But as many turn their attention to a “recovery” phase for this pandemic, there are also some lessons learned from the experience of HIV/AIDS that might be applicable today.
It begins with the very term – recovery. On the grand scale this word refers to the desire to address the economic impact that has been wrought by the pandemic and the necessary measures of social distancing to contain it. On a more individual level, recovery signifies getting our lives back – having people over, going out to a restaurant, receiving or giving a hug. For the former the yearning has led to policies put into motion that will relax containment measures, leveraging economic gain with potential human loss. For the latter, it may lead to easing up and going to get that haircut or have one’s nails done or getting that hug. For both, the outcome may be perilous. Time will tell.
Language is important. The word “recovery” sets up an expectation that things – business, the economy, our personal lives, will go back to “normal” or that there will be a “new normal” that is different – though undefined despite the fact that the term is increasingly used. There are many scenarios of what may happen with the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of them is that the recovery is represented less by a definite demarcation – a turning point or represented by straight lines – to one represented by wavy lines, where infection rates go up and down. In the absence of a vaccine, this scenario has a strong basis, perhaps particularly as social distancing is relaxed in a patchwork fashion across the nation. A “new-normal” could be a state of being where there is no new normal.
From 1981 through 1997, I worked in HIV/AIDS and in the early days of the 1980s was the Director of Legal Services at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, providing legal support to people – helping battle insurance companies, devising immigration solutions, bringing discrimination actions and doing endless wills – many in hospital rooms suited up in protective garb of caps, gowns, and masks. Almost every day I got “RIP sheets” delivered to me naming my clients who had died. I had about 3000 clients at any given time and there were 3-4 names per sheet of paper. On some days, the RIP sheets ran 20 pages long. Many co-workers died; many friends died (once 2 in a day); my partner died. It would be many years before there was an effective treatment that would bring change. Every day represented a yearning for recovery – hopes that rested on the possibility of either a cure or a vaccine. It bears noting that we are still waiting for either one. And all that happened nearly forty years ago.
My point is this. Recovery experiences that are so life-changing is very subjective. It is not a blanket return to normal. Something you quickly learn going through this sort of thing is that it is not a crisis that comes and goes, it is bigger than a crisis. Tectonic plates shift. Things re-order. Recovery implies an ability to forget about what has happened and to move on. But in fact, when the magnitude of what you go through is so large, expansive and pervasive, you don’t forget, you learn to live with it. Or you don’t. It became a mantra of mine in those days. You don’t forget this, you learn to live with it. And that takes work.
And so in the context of today’s pandemic, what we are going through – economically, politically and personally – invites a sort of examination of our strengths on a very subjective level. A promise of “recovery” in the traditional sense is perhaps setting ourselves up for failure. Moreover, this does not happen from the top down. It cannot be ordered by policymakers, either those in government or those in corporations, organizations or other institutions. It is not directed, it is inspired. And it will have to come from within – from the people living in states, the people working in companies, and those serving in institutions. And forty years from now, it may well be those who discarded the notion of “recovery” in favor of concentrating on the ability to adapt who have a perspective that helped them survive.