Obviously, our current COVID-19 crisis brings up a lot of anxiety, even PTSD, for folks living with HIV/AIDS, especially longtime survivors. All the talk of who’s spreading it and how, the daily nationwide sickness and death toll, the dread that oneself or loved ones will suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the frequent examples of government incompetence and apathy amid a crisis—let’s face it, it’s all a little too reminiscent of a certain epidemic many of us remember too well from the 1980s and 1990s.
But the flip side of all that devastation and grief is resilience and grace, and that’s what so many folks living with HIV/AIDS—nationwide and globally—are exhibiting as we hunker down through this pandemic of indefinite length and scope. TheBody spent the past few days talking to 10 people living with HIV nationwide to find out how they’re affected and why they’re scared—but also how they’re coping, adapting, and staying connected in these challenging (and isolating) times. Send your own COVID-19 stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to stay on top of how the community is faring.
Today, TheBody checks in with Houston activist Venita Ray, who’s channeling her COVID-19 anxiety into healthy eating, at-home exercise, and regular Zoom chats with her area people living with HIV support network. Working almost nonstop from her kitchen table, she says she’s nervous about the current times but also takes hope in seeing virtual forms of mutual aid happening all around her.
Venita Ray, national deputy director for Positive Women’s Network, 61
Diagnosed with HIV in 2003
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Venita Ray: I’m emotionally affected, watching all the pain and grief that’s going on—and all the misinformation. It reminds me of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, not knowing what information to trust.
I try to hold space for people, but I can’t be 100% present right now. I’m still trying to stay healthy and be there for other people as much as I can. At PWN, we were working on the 2020 elections and how to get people to the ballot box. Now we’re trying to figure out how to do that remotely. How do we take care of immediate needs but also focus on the elections and the Census?
I’m talking with all my staff nationwide about the level of uncertainty. I’m hearing a lot of fears from family members who may be homeless or are still having to go to work and can’t socially distance. My niece, who’s staying with me, just got her job cut down to 30 hours. I just found out a friend of mine in California passed away from COVID-19. So it’s all definitely an emotional toll. Today I was feeling really heavy, but I’m trying to lift up the spirits of others. Trying to stay in the moment and breathe.
TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?
VR: I have a group of about 13 folks in Houston with HIV I’ve been in a support group with for six years. We just completed a two-hour Zoom call to support each other—one of them just got laid off—and talked about how to reach out to others with HIV. Someone said that maybe we could meet in a park, but others weren’t OK with that.
The other day we launched a PWN virtual support group. It’s a good tool, but people still miss face-to-face interactions. Virtual connections are better when you’re doing it as a supplement. My niece told me I had to leave the house because I’m at my kitchen table on calls and Zoom all day. But at the store, people aren’t making eye contact, because they’re tense.
TM: How are you getting exercise?
VR: My gym, Lazarus House Center for Wellness, which started in the ’90s and still caters to people with HIV, closed down two weeks ago, and I broke down and cried. I would go every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning for my usual routine. So now my gym has a Facebook group where we are posting at-home exercises. I have weights and a yoga ball, and I had my niece doing weights with me a little bit earlier.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
VR: I’m a vegetarian who typically buys food once a week. So I’ve got roasted asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens. Today I made a spinach smoothie with banana and berries. I committed that if I had to stay at home, then part of my self-care would be nutrition. I’m trying to find the things that are within my control. I’ve been washing baseboards and windows.
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
VR: One of the shows I like right now is King of Queens. I can always get a laugh there, because otherwise I get glued to the news. Or the food show, Chopped. I started bingeing on Netflix for the first time. I watched Gentefied and some other stuff. It was a great distraction for a whole weekend.
TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
VR: I’d say I started at three to four, but now it’s seven or eight. I have a daughter and two grandsons, nieces, brothers. I’m scared that family members will get it and not do well. Walking past homeless people, my heart breaks. The race and class division of who continues to be exposed, those who can’t work from home. I was talking to my grandson the other night and started coughing. He got scared, and I said, “I’m fine.” My T cells are in the 800 range. So I’ve let go of fear for myself, but I’m scared for others and what will the end of this look like.
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
VR: The great generosity of others. I always see this in the movement, the selflessness of people. One of the guys on my calls got all this hand sanitizer and was making bags for homeless people. Even though we’re not physically touching right now, I feel a great connection with people—we’re all in this boat together, from California to New York to China to Pakistan.