The Original Herd Immunity

This may be the most sadly ironic World AIDS Day yet, as we watch the governments and corporations of the world marshal the necessary resources to banish a virus from the face of the Earth in just over a year’s time. And when they’re done, the human immunodeficiency virus will still be with us.

I know I’m not the first to clock a sort of “we’ve been here before” feeling about SARS-CoV-2; we’ve already said as much right here on Whosoever.

And I’ve found myself saying it in casual conversation as well. As a gay man who came of age while AIDS went from epidemic to pandemic, I’ve almost perfected a kind of mini-sermon on the coronavirus that goes something like this:

My people have been here before; we know what this looks like. And my personal view is that the virus isn’t out to get me — i.e., it’s not like it’s a snake curled up in a corner, waiting to strike. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take it seriously. I just have to keep my wits about me. The virus is simultaneously easy to contract and easy to avoid. The main variable in the whole equation is me, and my number one survival tactic is to assume that everyone has the virus and then behave accordingly.

Safe sex, meet social distance. Condoms, meet masks.

Now, I’d love to tell you that I started delivering this little speech in the early days of the pandemic, but I didn’t. Back then I was washing my groceries and quarantining packages and leaving my mail unopened just as much as anyone. I cowered in the house, buried myself in work and looked for signs that my neighbors were as freaked out as I was about the pending end of civilization.

But my turn to act out a scene from “The Walking Dead” in real life never came. Instead, people continued to walk their dogs, my neighbor shot hoops in the driveway, and the local drivers here in South Florida continued to conduct themselves as though we were all participants in a giant NASCAR race.

We did the same thing when Hurricane Eta came close enough to drop 14 inches of rain on us and brought floodwaters onto my patio and up my driveway (and in other neighborhoods, into people’s living rooms). No one ran into our cul-de-sac in hysterics, or packed up and abandoned Florida for good — or even parked their cars any differently.

The water came in, we watched it get higher and closer… and then it receded and we went back to whatever passes for normal right now.

It’s our human nature at work: Our remarkable ability to adapt and adjust to the tidal nature of a crisis, even a mortally threatening one, given enough time.

It’s a survival skill that could just as easily be our undoing in the long run. The waters in the boater’s paradise where I live are systematically rising, and regular flooding has been a fact of life here for years. We recognize that this is a byproduct of climate change, but somehow we find ourselves unable to alter either the individual or collective behaviors that got us here in a dramatic enough fashion to literally turn the tide.

Instead, what we find ourselves able to do is reinforce our seawalls, pay higher insurance rates and update building codes, as we did after Hurricane Andrew; for instance, the front door of every house here opens outward because it’s much more hurricane-proof that way.

Meanwhile, hurricane season just gets more and more terrifying. With 30 named storms, 2020 officially outdid the next highest year by two: 2005 had 28 systems of tropical storm strength or greater. We’ve also had two storms in the last decade that technically exceeded the criteria for a Category 5 storm, the highest rating.

We have this amazing collective capacity to live through a crisis, or even several simultaneously — a storm, a pandemic, a cultural awakening around racist policing practices — and then get back to whatever passes for normal at the time. We sweep the patio and driveway, get good at coordinating masks with our outfits, and turn on the news to find that Black Americans are still dying at the hands of the police.

And all the while, for a handful of years now, a thread in that fabric of normalized shared absurdity has been that the HIV infection rate in the U.S. stabilized at around 38,000 new infections a year during the years from 2014 to 2018 — a two-thirds decrease in the annual rate since the height of the pandemic in the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most vulnerable populations, in order, continue to be Black gay and bisexual men, Latinx gay and bisexual men, white gay and bisexual men, and Black heterosexual women — with the South continuing to post the highest rates of new infections and transgender people increasingly joining the ranks of the infected. And while infection rates had decreased in the 13-24 age bracket from 2014-2018, they were highest for those age 25-34.

SARS-CoV-2 will come and go, and HIV will still be with us. It’ll still be with us because of ignorance, superstition, racism, homophobia and transphobia. It’ll still be with us not just because there’s no HIV vaccine, but also because we can’t seem to inoculate our society against the -isms that keep certain populations vulnerable to what is essentially an avoidable virus.

And if those -isms are fire, the kerosene on that fire for so many of us is the false piety of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

In the toxic soup of that misguided Christianity, far too many parents still find it easier to “hate the sin” of their daughter loving another woman, or of their son expressing a nonbinary gender identity, than to hold a mirror up to themselves and ask if they’re truly ready to cast the first stone.

The church has them so mesmerized by the prospect of eternal damnation and their alleged individual responsibility to save souls that they willingly practice exclusion in the name of a religion whose central tenet its radically opposite.

In the story of the woman about to be stoned, the lesson is that our number one job is to work on ourselves. It’s a job that we not only don’t ever finish — but maybe we’re not supposed to, for our own sake.

Jesus understood that in a world of stone-casting, the survival rate isn’t good. His ministry was devoted to helping us counteract that fundamental human wiring that makes us prefer running the scapegoat out of town in the name of exorcising demons to acknowledging that if the demons never truly leave and one scapegoating isn’t enough, there must be a deeper truth at work. That is the true salvation.

The true salvation is rejecting the temptation to judge what is sinful in another in favor of having that all-important conversation with God where we recognize that the only place that sin actually lives is in the human heart. Which is why he taught that God is there too; it’s the same God who is always the fourth one in the furnace.

Why we avoid that honest conversation with God is baffling, because we start it already bathed in grace. Like the Prodigal we can confess anything we like, but God isn’t even listening, because God’s already moved on to forgiveness.

God makes it so easy, yet we insist on making it so hard. And as a consequence, people suffer. They feel our stones hit their backs. The scapegoat leaves the village for the wilderness and whatever lies in wait there, and the villagers move on.

We’ll have a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine faster than an HIV vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic will come and go, and one in seven HIV-positive people in the U.S. alone will carry the virus without knowing their status because they’re afraid of the truth, or they don’t empower themselves within our healthcare system, or because of something else they’re bathed in from society’s cocktail of homophobic, transphobic and racist disenfranchisement.

Not that we’re called to change the system; we’re called to change ourselves. We’re called to love our neighbor, who by definition is both a friend and an other, both familiar and unfamiliar, who could be either a Levite or a Samaritan.

We know the formula for reversing climate change. We know how to maintain social distance. We are 100 percent woke to what goes on in our streets when no one is watching. We have condoms and PrEP.

God blessed us with memory, reason and skill so we could accomplish all these things — and we have our hearts to guide us to say that using condoms and masks is as much for ourselves as for those in our midst.

All these tools are at their most powerful when individuals do the right thing. And the individuals who are the most likely to do the right thing are the ones bathed in love.

Love of others helps us realize that our job is to protect souls and leave their salvation to God. Love of self helps us reach for the condom, or the mask, or to get an annual screening so that we’re armed with knowledge rather than fear.

Love is the chief preventative, the ultimate vaccine. It’s the number one inoculation against “othering,” fear, hate, discouragement and loathing, either of others or oneself. It does indeed cover a multitude of sins.

It’s the original herd immunity, able to combat whatever the world might throw at us to distract us from our relationship with God, where we find the strength to do what’s right and the solace to endure what’s not.

What will you do today to spread the ultimate cure? How will you love deeply enough to make a difference?