At a press conference in mid-June, President Donald Trump expressed his confidence in scientists’ ability to find a vaccine for the coronavirus (COVID-19) by claiming that experts have also managed to create a vaccine for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
That would be reassuring, except that it is entirely wrong.
Nearly 40 years after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, we still do not have a vaccine. The truth is that we have not defeated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic; we have just stopped paying attention as it has been relegated to marginalized communities. When issues leave the mainstream eye, we often draw the false conclusion that they have been solved.
Although far from over now, we will eventually look back on this pandemic with the perception that it has ended. New Zealand, for example, is already COVID-19 free. When the pandemic is controlled and we move forward into a “post-COVID-19” future, I worry about who might get left behind, and who is already being left behind.
In the recent “World Order After COVID-19” forum hosted by the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Dr. Jeremy Greene, director of the Hopkins Institute of the History of Medicine, discussed how epidemics end. During the “Applied History and Future Scenarios” panel, Greene described how some epidemics only end through a “widespread acceptance of a newly endemic state,” and argued that the social effects of epidemics do not disappear when the biological threat is gone.
Currently, we are all learning to cope on a day-to-day basis. Basic acts of self-care — showering, taking walks, cooking food and exercising — have become increasingly important as the focus shifts from productivity to the maintenance of wellbeing. Inevitably, however, we begin to wonder “what next?” How and when will the pandemic end?
As a trans person, I have been taught that envisioning a future for myself in our world is a radical act. In the same way, I think that envisioning a post-COVID-19 world can be radical in these dark times. However, doing so can also be dangerous. It is dangerous to assume that there will be a post-COVID-19 world in the near future — no vaccine has yet been released and people are still dying in large numbers.
While I hope there will soon be a vaccine, we must be careful when viewing it as the end to the pandemic. As Greene described, not everyone will be able to access a vaccine; they “are not universal technologies.” Uneven access to health care and health insurance present barriers to vaccination. Queer and trans people face many additional barriers to health care including financial barriers, discrimination and lack of provider knowledge. These issues were further exacerbated when Trump finalized a rule to eliminate health care and insurance discrimination protections for transgender people on the anniversary of the Pulse massacre last month.
Even if we can immunize most against COVID-19, we will still be living with its effects. The mental toll of surviving the pandemic will live within us for years, as will the trauma of losing loved ones. Many will be saddled with financial burdens due to job lay-offs or medical costs, and these effects are likely to be worse in marginalized communities. Even if a vaccine is released, it in no way signals a clear end to what we have been living through.
We need to ask ourselves: When a vaccine is released, the curves are flattened and we celebrate the “end” of the pandemic, who gets left behind? For whom has the struggle not ended? I’m thinking of those who are immunocompromised may not feel truly safe in public for a long time. And I am thinking about queer and trans people. I am afraid that as we begin to reopen and people are eager to “return to normal,” queer and trans people will again be forgotten.
Lawmakers have already used the pandemic as an opportunity to harm the most vulnerable. From the passage of legislation that harms trans youth, to the erasure of trans civil rights protections in health care, to Trump’s recent proposed ruling that would allow homeless shelters to discriminate against homeless transgender people, the pandemic is a convenient cover under which to inflict further devastation.
On top of this, LGBTQ people are not being identified in COVID-19 statistics and trans people have been misgendered in death reports, effectively erasing their existence posthumously. In life and in death, by legislative and other violent means, queer and trans people continue to be erased from the narrative at a time that is bound to go down in history, leaving me to ask: Will we make it into the story as well?
With so much discussion about what the post-COVID-19 world will look like, I see an opportunity for queer and trans people to insert ourselves into the future by insisting on our past and our present.
Queer and trans people have long been pushed to the margins of history and erased from public memory. Lately, many have invoked the history of the AIDS epidemic to draw parallels and distinctions with the COVID-19 crisis. Just as with AIDS, we know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects marginalized people. When queer and trans people invoke the history of AIDS in this way, I believe that we are attempting to argue for the relevance of our lived experiences and to insist on the importance of our community’s history in the current day. Drawing comparisons between COVID-19 and AIDS is an attempt to make visible the ways in which our past struggles have carried into the present and to return these struggles to the public eye.
It is a privileged perspective to hope for a “return to normal” in a time when “normal” for many people is an inability to live authentically and safely. Instead of striving to forge a post-COVID-19 world, we should be striving to find ways to make the current world more livable. In order to emerge from this pandemic, we must educate ourselves about the historical and contemporary lived experiences of the most marginalized amongst us. This necessitates an understanding of how historical traumas impact health, particularly for queer and trans people of color. According to a poll by NPR, 22 percent of transgender Americans claim that they have avoided seeking medical attention for fear of discrimination. Years of pathologization and criminalization of queer and trans people has led to profound medical and institutional mistrust resulting in negative health outcomes.
For all the pre-meds and aspiring health-care providers at Hopkins: We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge the fact that historical traumas carry into the present, producing tangible effects on marginalized communities. It is our job to study these histories in detail and to understand how they shape society and create disparities in health and in medical treatment.
We can be hopeful for an end to the pandemic and for a return to “normal,” but we should not forget about those for whom the struggle does not end and those who are in danger of being left behind when society forges a path forward.
Aaron Wiegand is a rising senior from Clinton, New Jersey studying Biomedical Engineering. He is a member of Hopkins Community Connection and the Women and Gender Minorities’ Caucus.