Not so Distant – by Dennis Altman

On March 27 Juan Carlos sent me a video taken from his balcony, of police and military enforcing a curfew in Quito. This was not the first time Ecuador has been under curfew: six months ago the government imposed curfews in reaction to mass protests, led by indigenous groups, against austerity measures imposed by the government of President Lenin [sic] Moreno.

Had the pandemic not happened we would have been together at a conference in Honolulu, marking two years since we first met at a similar conference in San Francisco in 2018. We’ve stayed close ever since, and have spent perhaps seventeen weeks together, in the United States, in Melbourne and, most romantically, on a cruise up the coast of Norway. For the first time since we met there can be no plans to see each other again.

Global lockdowns have disrupted relationships in all sorts of ways, either forcing people apart or ironically forcing them too much together. There will almost certainly be a slew of coronavirus divorces, pregnancies, break-ups and new romances. Marilyn Monroe allegedly said, ‘it’s better to be unhappy alone than to be unhappy with someone else’ and the pandemic has tested this in unpredictable ways.

For Juan Carlos, who teaches at a University in Ecuador, the pandemic has meant enforced isolation and a massive workload as he struggles with an inadequate laptop and students who don’t always have good internet access. I’m semi-retired and work from home: ‘So what’, Juan Carlos asks, ‘is different for you?’

The lockdown he faces is far more draconian than ours; currently there is a curfew that extends from 2.00pm to 6.00 am and outdoor exercise is forbidden. He has had no social contact for three weeks; on the one day he can drive he takes food to his mother but leaves it outside her door.

The pandemic in Ecuador was one of the first in Latin America, with scary images coming from the port city of Guayaquil of people being turned away from hospitals, of bodies lying in homes because they cannot be collected for burial. By the beginning of May 1700 people had died in Ecuador, which has a population smaller than Australia’s, and the pandemic was threatening a number of indigenous communities. Now similar stories are emerging from Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq.

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We have been here before. For gay men of the generation who experienced the worst ravages of the AIDS pandemic there are unsettling parallels in our experience of coronavirus. The demands for social isolation remind many of us of the panic in the early days of the AIDS pandemic when there were irrational fears that any contact with a suspected ‘carrier’ could lead to infection: men were refused treatment, hospital patients had food thrust under doors by nervous orderlies, there were demands for quarantine and the closure of sex venues.

COVID-19 is far more easily transmitted; has a lower death rate than AIDS before the development of ARV therapy, though deaths came in general more slowly, as HIV destroyed the immune system and laid bodies open to a myriad of infections. Most important Covid is not associated with stigmatised behaviors around sex and drugs, although it has produced its own share of stigma. As with AIDS COVID-19 has produced a search for culprits: in Guayaquil one woman, who’d arrived on a plane from Spain at the onset of the pandemic, was targeted as the source of the city’s pandemic. In Australia we have seen attacks on people of Chinese descent; it is only a few months ago, in the early innocent days of the pandemic, that we were encouraging people to eat at Chinese restaurants to counter racist attacks. The President of the United States has been determined to blame China for the pandemic, shifting attention away from his deliberate reduction of the country’s ability to respond to new pandemic diseases.

Once HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS it also became clear that the retrovirus could only be transmitted through what was coyly termed ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, so that semen and blood were identified as the routes of infection. The greatest death toll in those early years was among young men with haemophilia, who had received infected blood products, but preventing the transmission of HIV required far less caution than does coronavirus. Now we are told to avoid any close contact in ways that disrupt vast swathes of what we had taken for granted as part of everyday life.

We in Australia have been spared the grim death toll that’s affected so much else of the world. The pages of death notices that appeared in the gay press before effective therapies were developed against HIV have no counterpart in Australia to date, but they are matched in New York, Milan, Sao Paulo.

What is common to living through the two pandemics is the sense of anxiety, the fear that even when we take all reasonable precautions the virus might sneak up on us unexpectedly. One friend who is objectively at low risk managed to get tested three times before the end of April, recalling those gay men who during the early years of AIDS would seek out tests even when they had not put themselves at risk of exposure. And as with HIV tests it is possible to get tested negative on Wednesday, be infected on Thursday and pass on the virus, unnecessarily confident in one’s status.

Three months into the pandemic I am interviewed on zoom by Steven Dansky, whom I knew in the early halcyon days of gay liberation in New York. He wants to find a queer angle to the pandemic, but I struggle: unlike AIDS the impact of COVID-19 is greater according to age and class but not, I think, to sexuality. The restrictions on movement are hard on people not in live-in relationships, even more so on those in toxic living situations, whether with partners or housemates. For people used to finding intimacy through bars or on-line hook-ups there is a sudden hole in their lives, and this may be truer for more gay men than heterosexuals, but not for those in monogamous relationships. ‘Think of the trans* sex-workers who’ve lost their income’ says Steve, but isolation has been tough on all sex workers, as it has on most people who supply personal services.

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As with COVID-19 Australia’s response to AIDS was generally regarded as one of the best globally. In both cases there was considerable bipartisanship, in contrast to the United States under either Reagan or Trump. With the support of Prime Minister Hawke, the Health Minister Neal Blewett was able to develop a national program of HIV prevention which kept cases to a far lower level than in the United States. The states were less unified than they have been around COVID-19; Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen was particularly recalcitrant, so that money for the Queensland AIDS Council was funnelled through an order of Catholic nuns. But key figures in the Liberal party ensured the federal response was maintained.

Some of the leaders from the HIV world have emerged as leading authorities in the coronavirus response. Tony Fauci, the most trusted medical authority in the United States, was a key figure in developing anit-retrovirals to treat HIV and the White House coordinator of the COVID response (1), Deborah Birx, has overseen the AIDS response for both Presidents Obama and Trump. In Australia there has been key input from people like Bill Bowtell, who was the chief advisor to Health Minister Blewett at the outbreak of the pandemic, Sharon Lewin from the Doherty Institute who is leading research into a possible HIV cure and Michael Kidd, now Principal Medical Advisor to the federal government, who chaired one of the federal government’s advisory committees on HIV.

But that is where the parallels end. If there are fears that Australia is too prone to follow American models our response to COVID-19 suggests that there are distinct differences in our political cultures which a crisis highlights. It is obvious that the Australian response to the pandemic has been far more united and successful than that in the United States, both in terms of public health and economic support. The pandemic has, yet again, revealed the extraordinary shortcomings of the United States health system.

As in the case of AIDS, the United States, with its complex patchwork of federal, state and local authorities, was far slower to develop effective prevention. This was most marked in the case of needle users; while Australia prevented a major outbreak through the early institution of needle exchanges, these became hostage to the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs and are still not available across the country.

In the current pandemic the cultural differences between the two countries are most evident is in angry widespread demonstrations against lockdowns across the United States. Trust in government has remained sufficiently robust in Australia for the great majority to accept lockdowns. [Research from the US Studies Centre suggests far greater acceptance of government restrictions in Australia than the United States.] While there have been grumbles from occasional commentators there has been largescale acceptance of extraordinary measures taken in the name of public health.

Yes, there has been a least one demonstration outside the Victorian Parliament house on Sunday May 10, spurred by a ratbag collection of conspiracy theorists including anti-vaxxers, climate change sceptics and one woman who claimed Microsoft founder Bill Gates was orchestrating the pandemic (2). But we have not experienced the virulence of political debate in the United States where Dr Fauci has become the target for extreme hate mail and many Trump supporters view the pandemic as a plot aimed at the President. It’s significant that our response has been led by a conservative Prime Minister who has consistently deferred to health expertise rather than right wing commentators.

Any major pandemic will accentuate existing inequalities. This is apparent in the United States where, as with HIV, there is a larger impact on non-white and poor populations, related to existing poor health conditions and lack of access to medical care (3). Here the failure of the government to extend any form of income protection to perhaps a million casual workers and international students is causing widespread misery.

COVID-19 has received so much attention because unlike, say, the Ebola outbreak earlier this decade, it quickly affected rich countries. Globally the pandemic is probably still in its early stages. But social isolation and good hygiene is far more difficult in low-income countries where people live in cramped conditions, often without safe water supplies. When India suddenly imposed rigid shutdown measures it created conditions of extreme hardship for millions of people dependent on casual work and without proper housing. UN Agencies are warning of catastrophic possibilities if the pandemic takes hold in major refugee camps.

As with COVID-19 the World Health Organisation came under fire for its slow response to AIDS, leading to the establishment of a specific agent, UNAIDS in 1994 to coordinate global responses. The combination of pressure from community organisations, and the leadership of Bush, Blair and Chirac meant a remarkable array of global resources, and the establishment in 2002 of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Sadly the bitter name calling between the United States and China makes international cooperation more difficult in face of COVID-19.

A couple of weeks after Ecuador went into lockdown I suggest to Juan Carlos that we write something together about the pandemic in Ecuador, which I expect will be easy to get published in Australia. I am taken aback when one editor tells me there’s no interest in Latin America, but should I be surprised?

The need to control the pandemic has forced a closure of borders in ways that two months ago could only have been a wet dream for the most committed isolationist. Not only is international travel almost totally abandoned, even travel between states is now heavily policed. Where once we fantasised about visiting Venice or Borobudur, now a trip to Surfers is forbidden.

My fear is that necessary physical isolation will encourage a growing chauvinism and rejection of the outside world in favour of a narrow Australian chauvinism. Certainly the impact on travel will be felt for years: who would now feel confident embarking on a cruise? Which foreign student will want to come to study in a country that has made clear they are the first to be abandoned when things get tough?

Ours is a melancholic, not a sad separation. It does not compare with the awful enforced separations that infection, war, expatriation, incarceration forces on millions of people, separations that will only be intensified by corona-inspired lockdowns. After all, as a wise friend pointed out, ours has been a virtual relationship for most of the past two years. The difference now is that there is no fixed point where the virtual might become real. The pandemic has upset our very notion of the future.

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1 On Fauci see Michael Specter: ‘The Good Doctor’ New Yorker 20 April 2020.

2 ‘Ten arrested, officer injured at rally’ The Age 11 May 2020.

3 James Hargreaves and Calum Davey: ‘Three lessons for the COVID-19 response from pandemic HIV’ published April 13, 2020: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2352-3018(20)30110-7.

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Dennis Altman AM FASSA is Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University, and the author of many books, including the recent Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist (Monash Publishing 2019). This article first appeared on the Meanjin blog on 13 May 2020.

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