I watched the movie Philadelphia for the first time last night. Wow. I could watch that opening scene on a loop. Touring the city while Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia hums in the background, body buzzing in the dissonance created by the beauty and hope of one of our nation’s great cities brushing against all of its pain and despair, captured so brilliantly in a mere few minutes through moving pictures and a song.
If you watch it, be careful. If you make it through the opener in one piece, Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks sink their hooks in rapidly and don’t let go until you’ve witnessed the ugliness of fear, the suffering caused by stigma, and the utter physical deterioration delivered by the devastating disease known as AIDS. You might not come out of it the same person, but you will be better for it, I believe.
This post, however, is not a synopsis or a review of the movie Philadelphia. It’s more a reflection on how far we’ve come in overcoming the HIV and AIDS crisis globally. And how, unfortunately, that has gone largely unnoticed, and the medical community seems to be finding difficulty in gaining much needed public trust as they respond to the current pandemic.
Firstly, some context. I was born in 82, so I can’t really speak to what it was like first-hand when HIV was new, and a diagnosis was an absolute death sentence. When communities were decimated, and thousands had to stand by strongly, yet helplessly, as their loved ones vanished. When information was scarce and fear dominated the rhetoric around HIV and AIDS–all colored by anti-gay sentiment. When people were scared to use the same toilet as, shake hands with, or hug someone that might have AIDS for fear of getting infected. I found this statistic on Wikipedia as I was looking into the history of the film. 53 extras in the movie Philadelphia were HIV+. The film was released in 1993. By the end of 1994, 43 out of those 53 people had died.
That is just one example of how absolutely devastating this disease was when it first came on the scene.
Flash forward to 2015. I am now in Namibia training to be a health worker for a Community Health and HIV/AIDS Project in a rural community with an estimated HIV prevalence of 20%. I am learning that in this community, an HIV diagnosis is absolutely not a death sentence. That thanks to ARTs (antiretroviral therapies), infected people are living long healthy lives and are reaching viral suppression. In some cases, viral loads are so low that people living with HIV don’t even test positive anymore. (They aren’t cured, but the test can’t tell they have HIV) That, in this community, the virus is primarily spread through heterosexual sex, because men have many sexual partners, won’t wear condoms, and, tragically, women have little recourse from sexual assault and feel/are powerless to make decisions about their own sexual health.
That women adhere to treatment exceptionally well, to the point that they can safely breastfeed their newborn children without fear of infecting them.
I’m learning that HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal/anal fluids, and breast milk – not saliva, not urine, hugs, or handshakes.
I am also learning that there are still terrible stigmas and stereotypes around HIV and that these stereotypes are leading to unnecessary death. There are conspiracy theories about the virus, and these conspiracy theories are preventing people from getting treatment, and again, are causing unnecessary deaths, as well as continuing the spread of the virus.
I struggle. I start support groups. I teach life skills clubs in a hostel school. I do condom demonstrations. I make an impact or none at all. I come back to the states in the summer of 2017.
Flash forward to today. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. The angry mobs have activated. The conspiracy theories have appeared out of thin air – like the frogs in my Namibian village after a single rain. Even though it’s been dry for months and the sand is white and deep, and vegetation and wildlife scarce.
And I sit here feeling helpless and sometimes confused and sometimes angry. I see the hashtags and the chants of fire Fauci, and I think, fire Fauci? The guy who was at the forefront of the medical movement to save quite literally millions of lives during the HIV epidemic of the 80s and 90s. How don’t we trust this man? Is HIV and AIDS a hoax in their minds too?
People ARE dying. But somehow coordinated global conspiracies involving microchips are more believable in this moment than COVID-19 being real, and that the medical community– who has stepped up and saved so many people through emergency care, surgeries, cancer treatments, vaccines, and preventative health–is once again trying to help us in our desperate hour.
I don’t understand how we have strayed so far from a sense of public consensus and therefore sanity. I am one who is open to a multitude of possibilities and explanations when it comes to understanding life on this planet. I can agree we don’t understand things like bacteria or viruses well enough to know their contributions to intelligent life and balanced ecosystems. But I cannot understand how memes, outlandish conspiracy theories, and pseudo-science presented in documentary formats can be so easily trusted over professionals with decades of verified experience and the consensus of the scientific medical community that has been building a body of work on health since, like the beginning of fucking civilization.
I am thirty-seven. Still fairly young. But I’ve amassed a decent amount of experiences in my life. My military experience showed me that our soldiers and commanding officers are primarily good people entrusting in their government to appropriately call on them when it’s time to ensure the safety of the nation. My time at Comcast showed me that corporations are primarily made up of good people with great ideas for products and services who want to do their jobs well so they can feed their families. My time in the Peace Corps showed me that, as flawed as international development work can be, most people in that field want to make lives better for those who are struggling. I have many problems with our justice system, it’s more than flawed, but even the people who work in that system are just doing their best with what they have been given. I worked at The Glen Mills School, which is now shut down due to abuse allegations, so even still, I say most people are doing the best that they can.
I provide these examples to you to highlight the fact that my experiences taught me that systems are flawed but not due to evil people with grand schemes of control. That many things that feel like evil government or corporate conspiracies are really just horrible outcomes from flawed systems that have left us to feel powerless against them in the face of injustice. I’m asking people to step back a moment and think about who in their lives they would accuse of coordinating a global pandemic for the sake of gaining some illusionary control of society?
I understand we must stay open and ever in search of the truth. Sometimes the truth is discovered through scientific rigor, sometimes by way of life experiences, and other times it is found in the scriptures and stories that have been passed along through the generations. But there seems to be something different about the conspiracies being circulated out there around COVID-19. They are incendiary and create a divisive ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. And I don’t see how any truth can be revealed from something rooted in fear and separation.
Please take care of your minds as well as your bodies and be careful of the content you consume the same way you are careful of the food or drugs you take. We’re going to need a mentally fit society if we’re going to get through this.
Take care, and thanks for reading.