COVID-19 and HIV: Lessons learned from the International AIDS Conference

Christina Greer, Ph.D. | 7/16/2020, midnight
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference, a bi-annual event, was hosted in the United States for the first time ...
Dr. Christina Greer

This week I turn over my column to my colleague Dr. Sheldon Applewhite, a medical sociologist who is sharing his thoughts on the International AIDS Conference.

The International AIDS Conference took place this week. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference, a bi-annual event, was hosted in the United States for the first time since 2012, when President Obama lifted the travel ban for people living with HIV and AIDs traveling to the United States. A major theme of the conference addressed those people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a mini-conference addressing the issues of co-morbidity and HIV/AIDS, and PLWHAs facing the danger of becoming infected with COVID-19.

HIV, like other chronic diseases in the U.S, disproportionately affects people of color and racial minorities like Blacks and Latinos. The infection rates we see among the minorities have to do with inequalities like lack of health insurance and quality health care. Additionally, people with chronic diseases are vulnerable to the risk of COVID-19. Minorities face an increased risk for COVID-19 because of the increased burden of disease they face as a result of health inequities that are found in the healthcare system in the United States.

The spread of COVID-19 resembles HIV when it first took hold in the U.S. It affects poor people in specific ways. Issues like crowded housing or being forced to work shape the ways disease progresses in these groups. Blacks and Latinos’ backgrounds embrace communal living based on culture and sometimes economic necessity. Indigent and minorities may not have the choice of not working or staying home like you and I may have. This means that the exposure to the COVID-19 virus is elevated because they may need to work to keep their jobs or to survive.

The COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. resembles the HIV epidemic in terms of prevention fatigue among those affected and those treating the disease. When the HIV epidemic first hit, those affected were diligent about trying to prevent themselves from becoming HIV infected. Gradually, groups like the gay community became wary of HIV prevention messages and practices like wearing condoms. We are seeing the same trends happening with COVID-19. People are slowly ignoring policies, like wearing facemasks and social distancing. Frontline workers face fatigue from working non-stop hours.

This year’s conference takeaway resembles what we’ve learned about HIV and what we now know about COVID-19. If we are going to overcome this pandemic and recover, we must think about the disease and its consequences beyond our own individual whims and needs. The future of our country and our world may depend on it.

—Dr. Sheldon Applewhite is an associate professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) at the City University of New York.

Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.