By Mikel Wadewitz, Director of AIDS Project RI
I am writing this in mid-March, as we collectively grapple with the threat of COVID-19 and the rapidly changing landscape it has forged. Many of us in the community have some experience with the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty one tiny virus can cause.
As I watch friends, family, and colleagues doing their best in this moment, I can’t help being reminded of HIV and AIDS, and how nearly 40 years ago as people became ill and started dying, many fought back fear and anxiety by stepping up to help the people who needed it most, and educating others with science and facts. Stigma against people with HIV ran deep (and sadly still does). But change came from people living with the virus and their support networks, and they transformed the healthcare system and how people are now treated.
As we confront a world threatened by COVID-19, the advice many of us used to combat HIV/AIDS is worth repeating: Fight the virus, not the person. Educate yourself. Do your part to minimize the potential spread of it.
Public health crises can bring out the worst in some people, but they can also energize whole new groups of individuals to stand up and rally for positive change. The history of HIV has taught us that this is, indeed, possible. The LGBTQ+ community was at the forefront of fighting for the rights of people with HIV, and for changes to the status quo. As people who have been marginalized and discriminated against for so long, we know that sometimes we have only each other to rely on for compassion and support. But that’s the beauty of our community: We want to make sure we all can thrive.
So, please check in on your friends and family. Pledge to help those who need assistance—whether that’s dropping off some toilet paper, calling to check in, or having groceries delivered to them. At APRI, we have modified our food pantry to do non-contact pick up and drop-offs of groceries and personal care items—as well as arts and crafts supplies— for folx living with HIV, who might also be at higher risk for COVID-19. You can support our efforts by donating at www.aidsprojectri.org/donate. RI Pride is conducting an ongoing food and personal care item drive for the community (see www.prideri. org). Other organizations and health centers which provide LGBTQ+ services and care can use your help as well.
Let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned from another virus, and commit to take care of one another. We need compassion and collective effort, not fear. This year marks the 35th anniversary of AIDS Project Rhode Island. While we keep an eye on new developments and adjust events accordingly, all our plans for commemorating this landmark will be posted at www.aidsprojectri.org/celebrate. Please sign up for emails to stay up to date.
APRI is dedicated to providing a compassionate, nonjudgmental, and collaborative response to the needs of people living with, affected by, and at risk for acquiring HIV. APRI, a division of Family Service of Rhode Island, currently provides the largest number of support services in the state for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, as well as comprehensive prevention and testing services. For more information, please visit aidsprojectri.org, facebook.com/ AIDSProjectRhodeIsland, or twitter.com/AIDSProjectRI.