1997: Like PrEP but Covid

JMJ

Continuing the series of posts comparing this current situation to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, after 1985 and 1987 it seems good to skip a bit of time, to 1997 and today. The parallels continue to hold.

In conversation, recently, a friend and I were discussing the huge change that came over the Gay community in response to AIDS. Evidently this storyline is part of the “Television Version” and has some traction even outside the community. This story looks like this: in response to the health situation, the cities and states closed sex clubs and bathhouses and, as people started getting sick and then dying, the culture changed. Instead of focusing on sex, monogamous relationships became the pattern. Advocates for marriage took over the podium at events and in the public eye. Books like Virtually Normal came out. There was a lot of pushback against folks who were engaged in unsafe sex. There was widespread approval of the cities (and states) who closed the outlets for anonymous sex.

In this same time period, however, something else happened: in NYC was founded a group called Sex Panic! to demand something rather different: a return to the way it was before. They wanted to affirm all the previous expressions of sexuality that were common in the community and they wanted the freedom to return to them. This was the beginning of the mass popularity of such phrases as “sex-positive” and “polyamory”. Both had been around before, but they were not in the shared experience or vocabulary of a lot of folks in the community. As they became more popular in the community, they also gained traction in the wider population.

These two things – “Settle Down” and “Sex Panic!” – happening at the same time created a culture that wanted marriage – but also wanted to be able to have open marriages. However, AIDS was still a thing. Enter PrEP.

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis (the taking of a prescription drug as a means of preventing HIV infection in an HIV-negative person). It means exactly that: a person who takes HIV medication on a daily basis in order to not-get HIV while they engage in sexual behavior that has varying degrees of risk. It’s not exactly a vaccine against catching HIV, but it’s basically the same thing: if there are enough of the drugs in your system, if you are exposed to HIV, you are safe. The drugs prevent the virus from gaining traction in your system. Coincidently, the same drugs seem to also have an effect in the battles against Covid-19. They are studying this now.

After all the cultural parallels noted between HIV and Covid, would it not be very rich if the solution were found in the same drugs?

Where we stand just now, as some things open, some states and cities open, is at the same cusp. We don’t have a vaccine, though. So lives are still at risk. But If we let the Sex Panic! side win, we’ll be right back where we started. The “Settle Down” side can’t win either: our culture needs to change, we cannot settle into working from home and letting the homeless die on our streets from a disease we kept outside.

Mind you, “herd immunity” is not the right answer since we don’t know what immunity looks like for this virus. For example: testing positive for the antibodies our bodies make to fight HIV means you already have it… not that you’ve fought it off. Untreated you will die. Is Covid that way? We don’t know. If you have it once, can you get it again? We think not… but are there different strains? If we’re immune to one, are we immune to the other(s)? Again, we don’t know.

But if we go into successive cycles of lockdowns, as seems possible, will there not be an economic collapse? I think so. Do we have a moral imperative to save lives – even poor, uncomfortable, jobless lives – over the economy.

Yes. YES AF. That’s the essential pro-life argument: a life is valuable, in God’s image, pro se – for itself. Economic conditions, etc do not overrule the value of that life, that icon of God.

But what we have learned, I hope, is we cannot go back to the way things were: our culture is sick. This virus is only a symptom. We need to fix wages, health care, politics, capitalism, trade…

This is not the time to settle down, either. This is the time to fight.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.