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, we check in with longtime survivor Kimo Conant Golden Eagle, who says that aspects of the coronavirus crisis, including the deplorable federal response, remind him of the height of the AIDS crisis. He says that living carefully on a budget with a roommate has allowed him to weather this current moment—aided, of course, by walks and swims amid the stunning natural beauty of Hawai’i, land of his ancestors.
Kimo Conant Golden Eagle, 65
Kahului, Maui, Hawai’i
Diagnosed with HIV in 1985
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Kimo Conant Golden Eagle: I’m OK financially, as I learned during the very dark times of AIDS to live healthily and simply. My recent loss of extra Uber income is not that difficult. I just stopped driving my car and had the insurance suspended to save money, which I can use to spend more on eating a bit more luxuriously. I have not applied for SNAP [food stamps], but I will if I need it. I’m living only on my SSDI [disability insurance benefits] right now. It’s lean, but I’ve done this before. And fortunately, living where I do here in Kahului, I can walk everywhere to fulfill my needs.
I live in a very affordable situation, with another retired person on a fixed income who is HIV negative but also is a survivor of the darkest days of AIDS in San Francisco. We’re sharing stories, tears, and laughter. We’re pooling resources and chores.
Emotionally, the current situation has been a throwback for me in countless ways, as an HIV longtime survivor, to more difficult years. Current social distancing can be especially traumatic, with reminders of how people backed away from me and so many beloveds in the early days of the epidemic. There are the masks, gowns, and gloves that are being worn. It took me about 10 days to process those old memories and not feel too affected by them amid the current events.
TM: How are you staying socially connected?
KCGE: I’m part of several distinct social groups that I’m currently unable to be physically interacting with. Three of them are family, and three are support/spiritual. We’ve lost the social aspects of our small GLBT organization—the hikes, dinners out, organizational meetings, and socializing. But I’m adapting and grateful for what I do have. On my walks, I see many people who don’t even have a place to shelter.
I’m attending online sobriety meetings and important spiritual practices with others from around the world. But it’s not the same as real attendance! I’m grateful that our local mostly longtime survivor support group will be meeting online this week. And my family and friends spend time together on Duo, Marco Polo, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, and old-fashioned phone calls.
TM: How are you getting exercise?
KCGE: I walk two to four miles most days and take a red rubber exercise band with me into a nearby park. I swim in the harbor nearby, or at a beach when the water is more inviting. I’m aware how fortunate I am to be living here on Maui with warm weather and outdoors so readily available.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
KCGE: I started stocking up back in February with healthy and simple staples from Costco, to avoid the panic buying. I’m primarily vegan and purchase my fresh foods from Whole Foods and the local grocery store, both a 10-minute walk away.
I’m grateful that I’m part of a very tight, small, and inclusive GLBT community here on Maui. One of our more active trans members set up a food and supply collecting event for all Kupuna [elders] on the island, especially shut-ins, those in rural areas, and those affected by HIV. I got some toilet paper there!
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
KCGE: I’m not reading much right now as I’ve been immersed in a project I’ve wanted to do for a very long time—going through photos and sharing them with interested friends and groups. This is a bittersweet and slow but very rewarding process.
I’ve been watching a lot of PBS, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, rewatching all the Star Trek series as well as other classics and newer, popular series. Beecham House on PBS was quite good. All the men were gorgeous, and the costuming was divine!
TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
KCGE: I’d say 3 to 4. I’m not particularly afraid of death or dying. My greatest angst has been primarily around not infecting others, especially friends and family, when it was possible that I was infected. I had to wait 12 days in isolation before I could get tested, then another five days waiting to learn that I was not infected with COVID-19.
As with AIDS, the political machinations, denial, and ignorance over the proven science has been traumatic and a source of anger, despair, and depression at times.
My other fear is not getting all my affairs in order and leaving a mess, should I get sick and die! My very best friend and person who held all the legal issues in partnership with me for over 30 years suddenly died in January, in a tragic accident here in the water on Maui. So in the midst of grieving, I’m nearing completion of all my legal complexities, which of course is an emotional throwback to the days when many of us were dealing with this.
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
KCGE: My family, especially the little ones, who are 3 and 7. Also my faith and spiritual practices, my worldwide circles of friends and beloveds in recovery, and my community of former lovers and AIDS survivors.
Being home here in Hawai’i is also very comforting. We do life differently here, and I’m feeling very connected to my ancestors from this land, all of them having arrived by canoe, sailing, or steamship. This sense of place I feel here is very important. I’ve started washing my clothes in a basin every day to dry overnight, as my ancestors did. The simplicity of the act and its connection to the past is comforting.