When Two Pandemics Meet: COVID-19 and HIV Disproportionately Affect Communities of Color

Dan Garza BELatina Latinx HIV Pandemic
Photo courtesy of Daniel Garza

When Daniel was diagnosed with AIDS in August 2000, he was about to turn 30. Even though it had been two decades since the HIV epidemic hit the gay community in the United States, Daniel was not well informed about the issue.

Daniel G. Garza is an activist, volunteer, and educator, with over 20 years of experience on both coasts, where he has worked in various HIV/AIDS organizations. His recent collaboration with the +Life platform has been part of an initiative to draw attention to the striking parallels between the impact of AIDS and the coronavirus on communities of color.

In our conversation, he explains how, since his experience, he has discovered the impact of the disease on the Latino gay community.

“I knew what it was and I had conversations with the doctor,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Southern California, about the time of his diagnosis. “But I didn’t really know. And I don’t think I knew anyone who said, ‘Hey, I’m HIV-positive.’”

His lifestyle, between drugs and alcohol, made him have a different order of priorities.

“When I got sick, I spent three weeks in the hospital, but when the doctor came to give me the diagnosis, my biggest concern was whether I could walk out of the hospital and whether my hair would grow back.”

In his family, the story was also one of omission.

“Culture, religion, my conservative parents… I think I used that as an excuse not to inform myself more and better than I should know,” he confesses.

“My parents never had the sex talk with me,” he says with a laugh, winking at the taboo among Latino families to talk openly about sex education. “They found out I was gay when I was 17, and that’s when they knew there was something different about me. My father was almost 40 when I was born, so he never knew, one, to talk to me about sex, and two, to talk to me about gay sex.”

“I think they just didn’t have the right tools to talk to me about sex,” he adds, reflecting on how this lack of communication continues to be a problem for the Hispanic community.

BELatina Latinx HIV Pandemic Dan Garza
Photo courtesy of Daniel Garza

Silent Figures

While many seem to believe that not thinking about the coronavirus pandemic makes it nonexistent, the United States is one of the countries in the world that has not been able to control the first wave of contagion, with wellover 2 million cases and a quarter of a million deaths, to date.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanics in the country make up about 34 percent of the cases, a rate almost equal to that of whites despite being a significantly smaller proportion of the population.

At the same time, and in a worrying upturn in the country’s HIV/AIDS figures, Hispanics account for 21 percent of new infections over the past few years (9,800). 

Two Viruses, Same Risk

Young Latinos, especially gay and bisexual men, have been disproportionally affected by the HIV virus in the United States, due to factors affecting the general community, such as poverty, intravenous drug use, stigma, discrimination, limited access to health care, and language or cultural barriers in health care settings.

These same factors have accelerated the rate of coronavirus infection among Latinos in the country.

For Dr. Anu Seshadri, Medical Correspondent for +Life and UCLA Internal Medicine/Pediatric physician, the parallels are as evident as they are troubling.

BELatina Latinx HIV Pandemic
Photo courtesy of +Life

The fear due to lack of knowledge regarding the disease process and lack of treatment are just two of the first factors that lay the groundwork for a public health crisis, Seshadri explained in an e-mail.

“[It] really highlights the power of communities coming together, but also the need for the federal government to work with local/community groups in order to educate —bring awareness — prevent, treat, and implement necessary measures on the local level,” she explained.

“Both viruses can be transmitted by someone who is infected but shows no symptoms. Both can attack otherwise healthy people, and both can, at times, be deadly,” she added.

By 2016, an estimated 2,863 Latinos diagnosed with HIV died in the United States. In 2020, we are still waiting to know the exact numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19.

For Daniel, the parallels are also evident within the community.

“A week before the lockdown here in California, I was working in a grocery store, and every time I came home I felt a little bit of fear,” he said. “I thought if I got the disease, I could infect my partner. It felt very similar.”

Daniel also knows people who, once infected with COVID-19, preferred not to say anything for fear of stigma, rejection, or simply not knowing how others would react.

The difference, he says, is that with COVID-19 the weight of the accusing finger is different.

“It’s not like you decided to have unprotected sex,” he compares. “You just walked out of your house.”

For the activist, it is precisely that guilt that is one of the most difficult collaterals to deal with in both diseases: the guilt of having been infected and of — possibly or not — having infected someone else.

Although COVID-19 does not comes with the stigma that AIDS continues to carry — that of “gay cancer” — Daniel feels there are similarities as well.

“When you see someone without a mask, for example, everyone’s reaction is to point at them or run away as if they have hives or something,” he explains, recalling his family’s first reaction upon learning of his positive HIV diagnosis years ago. “They must feel really bad, because that’s how I felt.”

The Awareness Crusade

Both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have coincided in highlighting the inequalities to which the Hispanic community in the United States is subjected, and the fear of stigma, discrimination, homophobia, and even deportation.

Access to health care has been a major issue in the life decisions of our community, and with good reason. 

“It is scary to have two diseases where there is no cure available as of yet; no vaccinations available for prevention as of yet,” Dr. Seshadri explains.

The best tool, then, is “improving education and awareness, using our resources at hand.”

“Educating health professionals and encouraging the medical system to also take part in this process,” Dr. Seshadri adds. “Reassuring the public of current resources and treatments at hand that were not there before, and bringing about ways to make accessibility to care — testing, treatment, education — easier.”

HIV BELatina Pandemic Dan Garza
Photo courtesy of +Life

For David, from the trenches of activism, this process is even more uphill.

“I think we’ve done a good job within the community,” he says. “We insist that there are pills, there is control, there are ways not to get infected. But I think where we have failed is in telling people that it doesn’t end there. In telling them that the fact that there’s medication, doesn’t meant there’s no other side of the coin: living with HIV.”

“We don’t talk about the problems with the liver, kidneys, constant headaches, anxiety, drug depression, and all the side effects of treatment,” he adds. “It’s not about surviving, but knowing what you have to live with.”