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US LGBT community draws on AIDS experience to fight Covid

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David Perruzza, owner of the Washington gay bar Pitchers, stands behind signs requiring proof of patrons' Covid-19 vaccination./AFP
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Jan 25, 2022 - 07:02 AM

WASHINGTON — From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as fear and isolation spread, Dave Perruzza had one thought — he had seen it before.

“For me, it was thinking about the AIDS epidemic all over again, how nobody took it seriously,” said Perruzza, who owns two LGBT bars in Washington, the US capital.

“We were like, ‘Well, we’re going to take this seriously.'”

With the Omicron variant fueling fresh restrictions around the world, some older members of the LGBT community say their shared experience of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s put them ahead of the curve throughout the pandemic.

Perruzza has for months been requiring customers show Covid vaccination cards to enter his bars — popular gay spot Pitchers and neighboring lesbian venue A League of Her Own, in the Adams Morgan district of the city.

He implemented his vaccine rules in July, one of the first in Washington to do so — and months before the local government began this month to do the same.

“I think my age bracket is the last bracket that saw people that actually died of AIDS,” Perruzza, 43, who lost his first boyfriend to the disease, told AFP.

“I’m not going to let history repeat itself.”

The HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States raged for two decades after the first US case was discovered in 1981, and still claims lives today.

It primarily affected gay and bisexual men, Black and Latino men and trans women.

Then-president Ronald Reagan didn’t declare AIDS research a federal priority until 1985, and the first treatment was developed in 1987.

By the end of 2000, at least 450,000 people had died of AIDS in the United States, according to government data.

Same ‘hysteria and lies’ 

The pandemic has also brought back painful memories for Eric Sawyer, a founding member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, who also lost his partner to the disease.

“The misinformation, the hysteria, the spread of just absolute lies (and) the attempts by individuals to address it being part of the problem,” said Sawyer, who also worked with the UN’s HIV/AIDS program.

“The stigma and discrimination that people who had Covid face… completely parallel the HIV response.”

But some lessons may have been learned between the two health crises.

“The HIV epidemic taught us that education, testing and access to prevention methodologies” can be effective, said Sawyer.

HIV activists have also advocated for better distribution of supplies, as well as vaccine access for poor communities, communities of color and homeless people.

Even as these activists worked to combat Covid-19, however, the pandemic took a toll on the ongoing fight against HIV.

Studies by the Global Fund and UNAIDS found that the pandemic worldwide caused an 11 percent drop in prevention and treatment and a 22 percent drop in testing in 2020.

UNAIDS attributed the decrease to lockdowns that forced people into isolation, shuttered health services and disrupted HIV/AIDS programs.

‘You have to care’ 

“Because of our community’s now-four decades of experience with HIV, we understand chemical trials, we understand antivirals,” Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told AFP. “We’re not afraid of science.”

“As a community, we have a lot of solidarity,” he added, pointing out that many of those living with HIV are immunocompromised and need extra support.

LGBT activists rallied early in the pandemic to organize financial aid and safe housing for HIV-positive people. They also set up Covid testing at sexual health centers and Pride events.

Gay bars across the country began requiring proof of vaccination at the door, months before some US states followed suit. Almost half the states still reject any such requirements.

“LGBTQ bars are different… more like community centers,” said Ed Bailey, who co-owns Washington gay bars Trade and Number 9, pointing out that gay bars have distributed HIV literature and condoms for decades.

“Our bars are sometimes the only place some of the people that patronize us are able to go and be comfortable enough to be who they are,” said Bailey, 55. “That creates an entirely different level of responsibility.”

“You have to care about your community.”

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