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Mike, who is a prolific and much-loved HIV Activist and volunteer for HIV/AIDS outreach programs such as ACON (AIDS Council of NSW), found himself in the unusual position of no longer being able to perform his volunteering work and suddenly needing to be extra cautious around his health after the outbreak of COVID-19. We spoke with Mike about the effects of COVID-19 on him as an individual and on the LGBTQ+ community.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself?
A: I am 36 years old. I work in a consulting firm and I have been working from home for a month or so now. I am also a very active volunteer with ACON, and I spend most of my free time (pre-COVID) doing community work like home visits, charity fundraisers, working groups and educational talks on HIV and safer sex practices in our community
Q: You are an individual living with HIV during a time that is particularly dangerous for immune-compromised and immune-suppressed and immune-compromised individuals. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: Yes, I have been HIV-positive for about 7 years. I am currently on ARVT and I am completely healthy. Unfortunately, I have had and still do have a history of unrelated cardiac and respiratory issues.
Q: These two things in combination then really put you at risk in a situation like Covid-19, don’t they?
A: Definitely. HIV is now an easily treatable illness and AIDS seems like a far-off dream. But, because of the potential co-morbidities I have, there are certainly far more risks than usual. Corona is dangerous for individuals like me.
Q: I know you’ve been living with your conditions for a while, would you say that the experience of Covid-19 has shaken you up a little?
A: For sure –one day you have this manageable disease and then one day a dangerous virus comes along and it completely flips the world. I have not been afraid of being HIV-positive or what that meant for me for a very long time. I have worked so long in our community that it almost didn’t even register for me that I, or the people I help, even ever had a disease that could potentially turn in a circumstance like this.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you have faced during the Covid-19 crisis? What’s been most difficult to navigate?
A: There have been a few challenges. Of course, I have had to avoid people around me where possible. Wearing a mask everywhere, cleaning my hands constantly. My skin began to dry and crack so much after so many cleans with alcohol rub that I had to invest into an intense hand moisturizer to save them.
The most significant challenge for me was the restricted access to healthcare – as part of my care plan I am required to see a doctor for regular health checks every 6 months or so, and now the process for that was near impossible. Medical centers were afraid to let people in.
My medication, which I take once a day every day, I could normally go to the chemist and pick up in a four-month supply, but they were unwilling to do that on the off chance the supply lines were cut. This would mean having to leave the house and visit the chemist every month during quarantine, increasing my risk of exposure, and it just really started to freak me out, you know?
Such a big part of my life is my community involvement – I spend a lot of my private time volunteering, doing community visits and helping with members of our community who have assisted living requirements. All of that has absolutely changed. The way we can care for one another has gone out the window. It’s been so challenging when that is such a huge part of my life – and theirs.
Other than that, I would just say loneliness. I work heavily in my community, I am always seeing people, talking to my friends. You know as well as I do, in our community you can’t walk down Oxford Street without stopping and talking to somebody you know every five minutes. For LGBTQ+ the sense of community and our bond is everything, and that’s a distant dream for now.
Q: What actions have you or others around you taken to overcome the challenges you’ve faced during this time? How have you tried to create an environment of support, compassion and unity during this time?
A: Communicate, communicate, communicate! I’m not a massive tech head and so things like FaceTime and Houseparty all seemed a bit much for me, but I learned! It’ll never replace real face-to-face contact, but I have to say that it has provided opportunities for communication with others I wouldn’t normally get to!
Most of all, if you haven’t heard from somebody – reach out to them. You have no idea how often I’ve just felt absolutely bummed out only to receive a video call from a friend I’ve not heard from in a few weeks. Texting, sending each other memes and jokes and dumb videos from TikTok. Engaging with each other regularly is key to supporting each other. And you know what? If your most annoying, a boring friend calls you? Talk to them.
Q: What have you learnt during this experience and what are you proud of? What’s your biggest takeaway?
A: I’ve learned that humans really are such impressive and resilient human beings. Of course, I knew this from my work in the LGBTQ+ community – we’re a super resilient group of people but just globally, we as human beings are so wonderfully strong and compassionate for each other. Ignoring the toilet paper fiasco.
For myself, I am proud that I adapted my life around quarantine, and I did my best to make the best of it. I still did my yoga, I still went for walks at dusk. I was still cooking something nice for myself and my partner every night. Life went on.
In our community, we have a lot of respect for those we lost during the AIDS crisis and those that were around to remember it. They’re our past and we respect them as our elders, you know? I thought about them a lot during this time. – because a lot of those very same people are the ones we are caring for in our community volunteering. The parallels are certainly different, but in a lot of ways, they are very much the same. It was eye-opening.
Q: What lessons/experiences do you want to take forward with you, when life returns to the ‘new normal’?
A: I think what I want to take forward, and what I would like to world to take forward with them also, is that we must face each day, whatever it may bring, with determination, joy and bravery. That is the key to moving forward in a time of crisis.
Andrew is a consultant within Deloitte’s Human Capital practice. He has a strong connection to the LGBTQ+ community and contributes to the community through volunteering and activism work. Andrew is a passionate human rights advocate, with a double degree of Bachelor of Social Science and a Bachelor of International Relations and is currently completing his post-graduate Law degree focusing on Human Rights Law.