Society

How The Urban Battle Against HIV Helped Cities Fight COVID

HIV health and support groups in LGBT neighborhoods offered COVID-19 testing and other community services during the pandemic.

A second-hand store in New York is decorated for Gay Pride 2021
A second-hand store in New York is decorated for Gay Pride 2021
Daniel Baldwin Hess and Alex Bitterman

Throughout the pandemic, local neighborhoods have played a critical and well-documented role providing the health and social services necessary for American communities and businesses to survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gay neighborhoods were particularly well equipped to meet this challenge, according to our latest research on these communities.

We find that the lessons learned and trauma experienced early in the HIV/AIDS pandemic helped urban gay areas respond to COVID-19 quickly and effectively — especially in the face of early federal government paralysis.

How gay neighborhoods fought HIV/AIDS

Gay neighborhoods are those that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and other sexual minorities — a population generally referred to by the shorthand LGBTQ+. Well-known examples include the Castro district in San Francisco, Dupont Circle in Washington and Greenwich Village and Chelsea in New York City.

"Gayborhoods' grew during the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, offering LGTBQ people and their allies an escape from pervasive discrimination and prejudice. In these areas, sexual minorities could rent apartments, socialize in bars and express themselves freely in a like-minded, compassionate community.

Even as LGBTQ people in the U.S. began to live more openly, gay neighborhoods really coalesced around the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

When that mysterious new disease began ravaging the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, the U.S. government turned away from, not toward, those communities. Support critical for fighting HIV — including health care subsidies for uninsured people and funding for research on treatments and cures — was initially not provided. Information given by governments about disease transmission and treatment was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate.

Government neglect ended up stigmatizing people with HIV and leading to many avoidable deaths. So, as we uncovered in our most recent book, gay neighborhoods filled the void where government and mainstream organizations failed. They became the battlefields where the AIDS pandemic was fought and eventually won.

People in gay neighborhoods developed community organizations and systems to deliver health care and mental health services, provide social support for LGBTQ+ people and support LGBTQ-friendly businesses.

Public health organizations like New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis also stepped in to do what many doctors would not. They shared information about slowing and stopping the spread of HIV and also distributed condoms, conducted free HIV testing and connected people who tested positive to help.

Building community through crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic shares many similarities reminiscent of early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

With both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, there was a disjointed and bungled government response that endangered lives and produced both fear and stigma. Even some of the same government-appointed leaders were in place: Both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx worked on marshaling government resources to spearhead the medical response to HIV in the 1990s.

With COVID-19, as with HIV/AIDS, city and state governments were unprepared to fight a disease outbreak. They lacked both planning and infrastructure to effectively fight a rapidly accelerating public health threat.

Pro-Choice activist wearing a protection face mask in colors of the rainbow. — Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Several U.S. states, as a result, looked to organizations within gay neighborhoods for help, relying on neighborhood-based LGBTQ+ health care organizations to help support their COVID-19 pandemic response.

For example, in New York, the Erie County Department of Health requested that Evergreen Health — an LGBTQ community group originally established in the 1980s as a volunteer effort to fight HIV —assume responsibility for HIV testing during the COVID-19 pandemic so that the county government could focus on COVID-19 testing. Evergreen also opened a drive-though COVID-19 testing center in the spring of 2020 — four decades after it had introduced HIV testing to the Buffalo region.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Evergreen Health not only continued to provide health care and other supportive services to Buffalo's LGBTQ community but expanded offerings to better serve underserved and minority neighborhoods across the city. At that time, New York state was the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Chicago and other cities, activists used LGBTQ+ urban social and professional networks established during the HIV/AIDS pandemic to tackle this latest disease. Queer communities disseminated information about COVID-19 to neighbors and distributed face masks and other protective gear, just as they had once shared information about HIV transmission and given out condoms.

Lessons learned

States with major grassroots activism in the HIV crisis also applied lessons from that era about overcoming misinformation and fear of contagious diseases.

For instance, New York state used a network of small laboratories to process its COVID-19 tests and administer vaccines — a model pioneered during the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when large, centralized laboratories were initially nervous about working with HIV-positive blood samples. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, this allowed New York to react effectively and process COVID-19 tests relatively quickly.

Activists from the Gay Men's Health Crisis participating in the 2011 New York City Pride. — Photo: Jason Pier/CC BY-NC 2.0

New York, followed by California, was among states in which COVID-19 infection first showed up in the U.S. As these state governments set up testing procedures, they drew upon methods for testing established during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The experience in both New York and California with HIV/AIDS helped, at least in part, to establish robust testing networks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Kingdom government, on the other hand, chose centralized laboratories to process tests, rejecting an offer to create a complementary network of smaller local providers. That decision may have complicated testing and slowed results and contact tracing, according to reporting by SkyNews.

Our research also finds gay neighborhoods banded together to meet the needs of the broader community.

Activist mutual aid networks formed decades ago within "gayborhoods' deployed peer-to-peer mobile technologies to help feed locked down and sick people — not only within the LGBTQ community.

Many of these efforts to combat COVID-19, like actions taken to fight HIV/AIDS, were done quietly, without fanfare. This neighbor-helping-neighbor approach is a hallmark of the leadership that can be found in gay neighborhoods — experienced rescuers in times of crisis.The Conversation

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Daniel Baldwin Hess, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University at Buffalo and Alex Bitterman, Professor of Architecture and Design, Alfred State College of Technology, The State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.


It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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