I remember days as a young boy, swimming in the ocean off the coast of southern Maine. The exhilaration of that first step beyond the hard sand. I can still feel the breath leaving my lungs as I dove through the breakers and the sound of churning white foam, and gravity fell silent until my body rose back up out of the water and beyond the fluid gauntlet. I loved that part of the ocean with its mild swells, like a sleeping dragon, sleek scales rising and falling in rhythm. It was peaceful out there. I would stand on the soft ocean sand looking toward the shore, and let the din of body surfers, sand castle builders and even the sound of small transistor radios on the blankets of sunbathers all become a muted echo. When I was younger, I loved to sway back and forth as the gentle current caressed my scrawny little body. It was a sanctuary… until it wasn’t.
Often the next feeling I would experience was fear. With little warning, serenity would turn into a panicked attempt to set my feet back on the ocean floor only to find that it was not there. I had strayed to the point where I could no longer touch bottom. I can still feel my heart skipping a beat and my pulse rising as I frantically swam as fast as I could back toward the shore and the safety of places where the ocean water was not as tall as I was. There is probably more to consider about why I felt as though I was in control at any moment when I was still wrapped in the Atlantic Ocean, despite being able to the bottom. But kids will be kids, and immortality is still the normative concept in the minds of those less acquainted with human suffering.
Have you ever felt that immediate sense of panic? I experienced it again today.
I have grown fairly confident in my abilities to navigate the waters of COVID-19. I have settled into my new routines at home, and at work. And then, just like that small boy so quickly pulled from his aquatic sanctuary, the news that the coronavirus was having another unforeseen effect reminded me that I could not actually touch the bottom.
So here I am, wondering how I can swim closer to the shore and regain some footing. What was the news? Death from infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are most likely going to see a massive surge due to COVID-19. Yes, to a guy like me, this news causes the feeling of being kicked while at the same time having the wind knocked out of me. Why? Why? Why!? Why must this evil dragon keep regaining strength? What is happening to allow for such a deadly virus to come back and take more lives?
To answer this, we should begin by reminding ourselves that the answer is, and always has been, well, complicated. HIV/AIDS has always flourished in direct proportion to the amount of fear and stigma that exists. The virus and subsequent disease spreads its roots thick and deep in the soil where people let fear dictate their treatment of others.
Fear is fertilizer for all the things in our world that lead to isolation. Coronavirus is one of those things. It has impacted the fight against HIV/AIDS in a myriad of ways. First, the growing food scarcity and lack of resources available for proper nutritional health has made it difficult for people who are immunocompromised to stay healthy. Part of a comprehensive treatment plan for immunocompromised people is to eat the right kinds of foods to help build up their body’s ability to fight off infections. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities that were on the brink of food scarcity have plummeted. Food costs have risen exponentially in places where food is available, making it difficult for those who live in poverty to afford the foods they need to live.
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many HIV support groups are not allowed to meet. These support groups are an integral and vital part of combating the negative effects of social stigma. Why is this important? Because poverty and disease have a voice. This voice speaks and whispers to those they are closest to, reinforcing the idea that sick people are the sum total of only their illness, and that poor people are worth less than what even they could afford. This voice that speaks to the sick and the poor is deadly and potent. If not for the community of friends and caregivers that gather in support programs to share the true story of value, worth and wholeness, many would choose to give up, stop taking medication, and ultimately perish.
I am grateful for Blood:Water’s partner organizations that are working to reach people who may feel isolated or abandoned during this new pandemic. Unfortunately, there are many places where these programs do not exist and that will be much more apparent as time moves forward.
We have all rejoiced over the incredible stories of maternal health support and how so many babies are now able to be born free from HIV. This is also an area where coronavirus is having an impact. In many communities, pregnant women are choosing to skip their prenatal appointments because they are afraid of being tested for coronavirus and ending up in isolated quarantine (which would drastically impact their means of surviving, as many are living hand-to-mouth). Women who are taking medications that would allow their babies to be born free of HIV are not going to the clinic to acquire their medications for fear of contracting coronavirus. This will result in more babies being born HIV-positive, and will dramatically impact child mortality rates in the coming months.
Do you feel the ocean floor slipping away? I do. But I won’t leave you out there without feeling the soft sand beneath your toes again.
This is why the work we are doing in Africa matters now more than ever. When we fight COVID-19, we are also fighting HIV/AIDS. Our partners need the support from you and I. They risk fatigue, frustration, and disappointment as much as we do. We have all worked far too long, and too hard to let this dragon of a virus, HIV/AIDS, regain any strength.
There is a constant in the metaphor of not being able to touch bottom. God still controls the waters, and God has given us the ability to swim. He has made us for such a time as this. He has equipped us to be innovative, creative, compassionate, courageous and generous. He has placed this moment in our point in history because there is something in it for us to learn, to experience, and also something for us to do. How can we make sure that coronavirus and all of the chaos it has created does not usher in the rebirth of HIV/AIDS? The answer is the work that Blood:Water and our African partner organizations are doing right now.
Can we get back to the place where our feet touch the ground?
I know we can.