Commentary: AIDS Walk organizer sees COVID-19 similarities

By John Beckley

As I began to prepare for AIDS Walk Delaware 2020, a parallel scenario formed in my mind.

People are getting sick, some passing along a virus but showing no symptoms. Many people think only a certain population needs to worry about dying. Then, people from diverse populations receive worrisome diagnoses. Children get sick. People in essential jobs face risk.

John Buckley

As the science develops, some of the information reaching the public contradicts previous information. So, some people hold on to outdated beliefs. The community awaits a treatment that takes forever to arrive.

Fear of the virus changes social patterns, and businesses close. People behave secretively due to stigma associated with infection.

Inexpensive barriers can provide protection — but some complain about how they feel, and some people are overconfident in their ability to avoid infection. Intoxication is blamed when people don’t comply.

Are we talking about face masks in 2020, or have we taken a time machine back to the 1980s?

The parallels between the start of the AIDS crisis and 2020 are astounding. It has always been the walk’s work to encourage protection to mitigate the spread of a pandemic, while supporting people at risk and suffering.

As we prepare for “AIDS Walk Delaware: Weeklong Challenge-Sept. 12-19,” we count ourselves both lucky and unlucky.

In the 1980s, HIV was a near-guaranteed death sentence. AIDS has historically claimed over 700,000 lives in the U.S. In 2020 America, “only” 1% of the population is likely to die from COVID-19, a figure that may exceed 3 million lives. Many millions will recover from COVID-19, but it is believed that a third of them will suffer long-term health concerns.

Delawareans have widespread access to free, fast COVID-19 testing that other states do not, and many at risk for HIV have access to preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Even if offered free at places like AIDS Delaware, rapid HIV tests were not available until 1992. And back then, it was not scientifically known  if “undetectable means untransmittable.”

And yet, the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV and AIDS can never rest easy. There is still no vaccine. Ask anyone who remembers the ’80s, “If you had a time machine, would you put a condom on every time?” When they say yes, think about what regrets mask-resisters may have some day.

Dilemmas in 2020 are the same as in the ’80s: How do I get groceries? How do I pay rent? Will I go into medical poverty to keep up with prescription costs?

In a crisis, people mobilize. Just like people sewed quilts then, today, people sew masks. Fatigue can set in and other issues distract.

But we can’t get distracted from HIV. People still need us.

We have a different approach this year: AIDS Walk Delaware is a weeklong challenge, taking place Sept. 12-19, with no in-person gathering in Rehoboth Beach or Wilmington. It includes fundraising, a scavenger hunt, and each walker choosing his or her own socially distant route and date to trek in support of this charitable effort.

AIDS Walk Delaware is a 34-year collaboration of AIDS Delaware and the Delaware HIV Consortium, along with participating AIDS service agencies statewide. Combined, AIDS Delaware and the Delaware HIV Consortium serve over 2,100 people annually. You might say that every $38 raised for the walk represents one person receiving services.

Event proceeds support prevention and awareness, as well as needs (transport, medication adherence, housing and testing) of people living with HIV — those who have had it for a long time, those who have just been diagnosed, those who love someone who is infected, those for whom the prevention efforts failed.

Walk with us in solidarity with Delawareans living with HIV and AIDS and to end stigma. Still today, HIV-positive individuals are afraid to reveal their status for fear of being shunned by family and society.

Let’s walk — this year, in a neighborhood or park, on a treadmill or virtually — for an end to HIV and for a healthy, HIV-informed community.

Let’s walk — this year, with a protective mask — in memoriam for those who simply wanted to live.

Join us. Let’s walk to end HIV — on any day you choose during the Weeklong Challenge. Sign up at aidswalkdelaware.org. Invite a friend to join you in a walk or to complete our scavenger hunt — socially distanced, of course.

John Beckley is director of development and marketing for AIDS Delaware.