COVID-19 and AIDS, Parallels/Differences + Sewing through Trauma

My partner Greg is the consummate handyman. He’s always outside sanding, varnishing, mowing, or fertilizing something-or-other. So when he coughed up a dozen N95 masks from the garage the other day, it wasn’t a surprised.

These masks are the gold standard personal protective equipment (PPE) during a health pandemic. And with coronavirus cutting a pitiless swathe across NJ, these masks are in short supply and heavily coveted here and everywhere.

“I don’t think we need all 12,” Greg concluded. “Who needs these?”

We could afford to be generous because an order of homemade, hand-sewn masks was already en route to our mailbox, courtesy of a very thoughtful, very crafty friend named Donna.

Greg and I aren’t on the front line battling coronavirus and so the homemade mask is fine for us.

Assemblywoman Nancy Foster Muñoz explains why. She’s a lawmaker from Summitt, NJ who put her retirement (as a nurse) on hold to scrub back up and join the battle against COVID-19

“While these masks are not as protective as the N95 respirators and surgical masks, they are effective at preventing people from touching their faces throughout the day, which is how many become infected,” she explained.

Notably, the homemade renderings free up whatever N95’s we happen to uncover in our basements and garages. Which may be on Nancy Muñoz’ mind when she’s at her sewing machine churning out homemade masks at home. Both of her sons are medical doctors as was her late husband Eric.

“I’ve been sewing every day that I am not volunteering at the testing center,” Muñoz told InsiderNJ. “Being a nurse becomes part of your identity. Ask any nurse and they will agree: once a nurse, always a nurse.”

She’s right. And so when Greg produced a box of N95’s, they pretty much already had a home.

EVA, RN (almost) 

Anya was an intern on a Congressional campaign I worked back in the aughts and probably the best intern I ever had. She’s all grown up now and and a recent Facebook post about her sister Eva, a nursing student, took my breath away.

Like anyone in school right now, Eva’s semester went sideways when coronavirus stuck. But Eva’s not staying at home.

Anya:

“My baby sister is my hero. When she got an email asking if anyone wanted/was willing to work in the hospital, she didn’t hesitate for a second before volunteering. America is now the world’s epicenter, and NYC is America’s epicenter, in the coronavirus pandemic, and Eva’s reaction to going into a hospital in likely the most medically dangerous place on earth was ‘this is what I’m trained to do.'”

And just like that Eva proved that youth, and the audacity of youth, isn’t always wasted on the young after all. Running headlong into the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 crisis takes courage, skill, and conviction. But let’s be honest, that level of chutzpah is hard to conjure once you’ve reached a certain age.

And so god bless you Eva, how can we help?

I texted Anya.

“I’m leaving these masks on your parents’ porch. Is that ok?” I asked and the reply came almost immediately.

“Yes please!”

The drive to make the drop was about 20 minutes and I cried the entire way.

First of all, this – all is this –  is hard. Who’s not on the verge on a good cry by now? And secondly, I imagined all those AIDS nurses (and nursing students) who, much like Eva, put their bodies on the line to curb the wrath of a deadly pandemic.

The scariest things about AIDS (besides its pre-cocktail lethality) was the ignorance surrounding the disease. It was painful convincing others they won’t catch HIV from a sneeze or a kiss or from sharing a joint.

Or from sharing a meal.

Meanwhile, coronavirus is transmitted through all those things and that’s chilling.

On the other hand, a particularly striking similarity between AIDS and COVID-19 is the faulty response from the Federal government.

That, and lots of sewing.

Sewing through Trauma

Amy Wilson is a NJ political polemicist who’s old enough to remember the AIDS crisis. She’s made “at least two hundred” hand-sewn masks to curb coronavirus transmissions, most of which she sold for a quarter a piece.

I reached out to see if she noticed any parallels between the AIDS quilt and today’s homemade masks .

“They provide comfort in a time of deep fear, isolation, and anger,” Ms Wilson said. “Both reflect a deep and almost absurd failure of public policy and elected officials. Both reflect how it took ordinary citizens, not elected officials, to take things into their own hands and try and fix this.”

She noted differences as well.

“AIDS quilt was a memorial for the dead,” Ms Wilson explained. “Homemade coronavirus masks are made to (hopefully) keep us living and ok.”

We wear masks in public now because the coronavirus is infinitely more communicable than HIV ever was. That’s why today’s version of scary feels so different and so much….scarier. You have to engage in very specific, risky behavior to catch HIV.

With corona, anyone’s at risk.

Everyone’s at risk.

I set out to draw parallels between AIDS and COVID-19. Turns out the differences were just as profound (and revealing) as the similarities.


Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and hand-soap aficionado living in Cherry Hill. He’s been HIV+ longer than most of his interns have been alive. 

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