News The Council commemorates World AIDS Day

We stop to recognize World AIDS Day on Dec. 1

The Providers’ Council stands in strong support of people living with HIV.  We also want to take a moment to remember those who have died from AIDS-related illness.  We’re proud to share this Viewpoint by Council member AIDS Project Worcester from the December edition of The Provider.

The Lessons of Decades

By Michelle Smith and Lester Paquin

As we mark the 32nd anniversary of the first World AIDS Day on December 1, 1988, we do so in the embrace of yet another pandemic – one which, like AIDS itself, was unforeseen and deceptively (even seductively) deadly.

To be sure, AIDS was not the world’s first pandemic. The list of previous ones is horrific in its length and consequence.

But AIDS was different. It emerged in mystery, grew in confusion and misunderstanding, and, unlike its deadly disease predecessors, targeted a certain segment of the population both in terms of its wrath and discrimination. The illness was just one terrible part of it; the accusatory ignorance and hurt heaped upon the suffering population — predominantly gay males — made AIDS a double-edged sword of destruction.

A generation and a half later, the novel coronavirus emerged. Like AIDS before it, the virus seemed to appear out of thin air — literally — and slammed into its victims with deadly effect. Unlike the initial outbreak of AIDS, however, COVID-19 does not afflict one predominant segment of the population. It does not discriminate between young and old, male and female, or any personal creed or identity. All are at risk. All may suffer. All may die.

That is, unless or until we confront COVID-19 with the same knowledge and vengeance we employed against AIDS three decades ago, once the scourge of that plague was identified. At this writing, there is no effective treatment for the coronavirus, just as there was no effective treatment for HIV and AIDS at the beginning.

However, that changed for HIV and AIDS. Diagnoses of these serious health afflictions are no longer automatic death sentences. With treatment and the miracles of modern medicine, people with HIV and AIDS are able to live long, productive lives. And thankfully, the stigma attached to those afflicted is slowly abating.

And so it will eventually be with COVID-19. Vaccines are emerging. Talk of administering doses of these life-saving sera is accelerating by the day. And there is an incoming presidential administration that “gets it,” bringing a promised seismic shift in recent public policy that will undoubtedly save lives and hopefully vanquish one of our predominant viral enemies.

It is not hyperbole to emphatically state that we are coping with a public health emergency unprecedented in the last generation and a half. As such, we must set aside political posturing, definitions and divisions; we are now required to rise above the hateful rhetoric and bloviation of ignorance and meet this crisis where it lives and thrives.

COVID-19 does not care what political philosophy we adhere to, what religion we embrace, what color we are, who we choose to sleep with, how much money we have or if we’re saintly or deplorable.

AIDS Project Worcester (APW) was established in the year preceding the first World AIDS Day to address the fundamental challenges facing those whose lives were at risk of forfeit. Issues such as medical care, housing, nutrition, emotional and physical support and an individual’s dignity and legacy became the mission of APW. Thirty-three years later, these vital concerns remain an integral part of our purpose.

But they are no longer the only aspect of who we are and what we do. Our assistance and community have expanded over the years to include a wide range of supportive services to those living with AIDS, HIV and HCV, STIs and a wide range of addictive substances and behaviors. We provide a panoply of client services — including help with securing and maintaining housing, medical treatment and insurance, a needle-exchange program, a food bank and a host of educational opportunities focusing on prevention and wellness.

And it is from this heritage of identifying need and applying creative and meaningful solutions to critical situations that we have successfully pivoted to aggressively addressing the COVID-19 crisis in our community. This is a natural, evolutionary development; as ours is a proven and long-standing legacy of public health activism — an important and enormously necessary role, particularly in this era of fact-denying and disease-shaming.

We have risen to the challenge here at APW. We created and maintain one of the state’s first mobile COVID-19 testing programs. We’re out in the community, meeting the public where they need us to be, performing the services they require and for which we are uniquely trained and dedicated. It hasn’t been easy, nor will our efforts diminish anytime soon. But this new challenge is part of who we are, who we were and who we aspire to be.

More than anything, APW has proven that it is not only possible, but necessary, to adapt to public health emergencies and crises as they arise — with a respectful, competent, non-judgmental efficiency that we are proud and capable of, and which the community deserves.

Michelle Smith is the executive director of AIDS Project Worcester. Lester Paquin is the data manager of AIDS Project Worcester. 

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