I’m 58 and overweight, with diabetes and high cholesterol. This puts me in a higher-risk category for COVID-19. But even those in the most vulnerable populations still have a 90% chance of survival — if we get the virus at all. Having lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, where the mortality rate was close to 100%, I’m not particularly worried. As a character in one of my favorite 1980s movies, “Tootsie,” said, “Don’t-don’t-don’t-don’t panic.”
Virtually no gay man my age hasn’t lost multiple friends and lovers. We watched friend after friend go blind, or develop dementia, or grow lesions, and die slow, miserable deaths. Death was a daily part of our life for years. But we went to work, we asked guys out on dates, we went to funerals, and we kept on living.
The Seattle Art Museum recently housed a special collection from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Having worked as a Mormon missionary in central and southern Italy, I wanted to experience part of that life again. In addition to the spectacular artwork, I was intrigued by a notecard accompanying one of the paintings. It mentioned that between 1656 and 1658, the bubonic plague wiped out almost 60% of Naples, nearly 150,000 people.
And you know what? The city survived.
The bubonic plague wiped out roughly a third of the world’s population in the Middle Ages and in later outbreaks. But life went on.
My grandfather caught the “Spanish flu” in 1918 and was deathly ill for several days. But he survived.
It’s societal disruption that will be the larger issue. A native New Orleanian, my life was upended by Hurricane Katrina. Cellphones and the internet were down for weeks. Electricity was out for over a month in most places, sometimes several months. Pumps at gas stations don’t work if there’s no electricity. Washing machines don’t work, either, and when you’re cleaning up debris in 95-degree weather, you want to be able to wash your clothes.
A co-worker in New Orleans committed suicide after losing everything. I never saw some of my friends again. I lost most of my belongings. I lost my job. I was forced to relocate thousands of miles away and start over. But you know what? I did. Life went on.
Panic will be an even larger issue. At the height of the AIDS crisis, people who were merely suspected of being gay, much less of having the virus, were fired from their jobs. They were kicked out of their apartments with no warning, their belongings dumped on the street.
When I told my grandmother, a rural Mississippi farmer, that I was gay, she wrote to her senators asking them to support gay rights. But she was afraid to hug me.
Disease has swept through human populations for millennia, and will continue to do so as long as our species continues to share the planet with bacteria and viruses. Which means forever.
So let’s take precautions. Let’s wash our hands. Let’s cover our coughs and sneezes. Let’s stay home from work if we’re sick. Let’s push for universal health care, since the health of the poor and uninsured affects the health of everyone else, too. And the poor and uninsured deserve a fighting chance at life regardless, even apart from pandemics.
It’s awful to be sick. And it’s heartbreaking to lose loved ones. That’s going to happen, though, regardless of COVID-19. My mother died of leukemia at 43. My partner died of liver cancer. A friend was stabbed to death by a gay basher. Premature death of any kind is genuinely tragic. But let’s calm down and realize most of us will get through this.
I’ve already lived through a global pandemic. So have most of you. Let’s take a deep breath and remember that the overwhelming majority of us will do so again. And again. And again.