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 Bronx, New York, HIV counselor Yolanda Diaz, whose new dog, Bambi, is getting her and her partner out of the apartment regularly for walks. Some days she eats healthy, others she falls back on the comfort food of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. But daily, she’s supported by virtual meetings with her people living with HIV networks both locally and nationally.
Yolanda Diaz, testing and counseling staffer, Iris House, 57
Diagnosed with HIV in 1989
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Yolanda Diaz: Health-wise I’m good, thank God. I canceled a dental appointment because I didn’t want to be in contact with anything. I’m working from home, so I’m OK financially. I’m calling women from the WILLOW [evidence-based HIV prevention for Black women] program, asking them how they are doing, and I’m doing a lot of webinars and online training.
We just finished doing a virtual AIDSWatch on March 30, so I’m still reviewing that. There were four sessions with hundreds of people, and the recordings are on YouTube.
I’ve been emotionally affected, especially when I look at the news on TV and the first thing I see is Gov. Cuomo talking about how many people are infected and have died—knowing that Trump knew about this the end of last year and did not prepare the U.S. for it. This president never cared for us and never will, and giving us $1,200 ain’t nothing. It doesn’t even pay half of my rent.
I was watching 20/20 a few days ago, and they showed the doctors and nurses battling this, scared and crying, not being able to hug their own children. That killed me. I get angry and depressed, then I say, “What’s going to happen to me?” I’m living with HIV for 31 years, as of April 6.
TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?
YD: I get on Zoom with the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus twice a month and with Positive Women’s Network. We’re working on the same content as usual, how to get out the vote. Iris House is having their first coronavirus staff happy hour tonight at 5. I don’t drink alcohol, so I’ll drink a coconut juice. I’m in touch with my daughter every day to hear how homeschooling of my grandson is doing. Her son doesn’t even want to get up, sleeps late and gets up late. She’s in Connecticut, not leaving the house.
TM: How are you getting exercise?
YD: I walk my new dog, Bambi. He’s a Shih Tzu/Pekingese. I take him in the morning for a spin, then wipe him down when we get back, then take him out again at 2 p.m. My husband and I each take him out twice a day. Usually he’d get three walks total.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
YD: Yesterday for lunch I had salad. Today, I did not do good. I bought fried chicken and mashed potatoes outside—just a snack box. Tonight I’m having salmon with some white rice, yesterday was ground beef with vegetables and noodles. I’m eating more than usual. I think I’m eating more snacks.
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
YD: I have a Spotify playlist called, “Tell Me If You Want Me To,” with Prince, TLC, a lot of R&B. I’ll watch Law and Order, Chicago P.D., and Bull, about a lawyer. I watched both Hunters and Jack Ryan all in one day.
TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
YD: Some days I’m more scared than others. Like this morning [April 1], I was really scared hearing the president saying that we’ll be in the peak in the next two weeks and a lot of people are going to die. More than 1,000 are already dead in NYC, 100 just in the past day. It’s really scary. People are in line outside groceries waiting to get in, but some managers are not making lines, they’re just letting everyone come in. I talked to my youngest brother, and he says he still knows adolescents who are smoking weed together and passing the joints around like nothing is happening.
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
YD: You guys! Everybody in the HIV community! Even you talking to people. People reaching out. I feel like even though we’re isolated, there is light on the other side of the tunnel. I know that if I had no food, I could call somebody and they would bring me some. I wake up and thank God in the morning that I’m alive and that [my husband] George and Bambi are still here with me. I pray to God to take care of myself, my family, and the people outside.
TM: Do you have any coronavirus anecdotes?
YD: I heard about a joke text saying that for only $3,500, we would come to your house as medics, take you away as a corona patient to rescue you from your wife, take you to your girlfriend’s for 14 days quarantine, then bring you back. That made me laugh.