Back to Life, Positively 2020 Index…
This year, instead of hitting the road, the AIDS Memorial Quilt — the more than 48,000 handmade panels honoring over 100,000 lives lost to AIDS that brought attention to and spurred action to address the pandemic back in the late 1980s — will have virtual showcases in all 50 states and U.S. territories due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The showcases will begin on the National AIDS Memorial website on Nov. 16, kicking off the activities for the World AIDS Day commemorations on Dec. 1.
“During the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, the Quilt was a source of immense comfort, inspiration and used as a tool for social activism to open the eyes of the nation to injustice,” as well as to help with healing and grieving, according to a statement from John Cunningham, the executive director of the National AIDS Memorial, in a recent press release.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the meaning of the Quilt has shifted.
“The Quilt team came up with this idea to use the power of the Quilt to help our nation heal during this current pandemic,” said Kevin Herglotz, a spokesman for the National AIDS Memorial. “Because as we’ve been in shelter in place, people haven’t been able to grieve. They haven’t been able to honor those who have been lost.”
The Quilt will be displayed virtually, featuring over 10,000 panels hosted by individuals and groups, each sharing a personal narrative. To be a host participant, a $500 fee was assessed, all of which funds were designated for the maintenance and care of the Quilt. The panels will be on display through March 31, 2021.
The dimensions of the panels are three feet by six feet, representing an average grave size. The panels are put together in bundles of eight, making 12 by 12 units, which can connect to larger sections of the quilt. The panels can be displayed on the ground — like they were at the National Mall back in the 1980s and 1990s — or hung up on a wall. The panels are each unique, showing images, poems, quotes or other personal touches that symbolize an individual’s life lost to the AIDS pandemic.
One group hosting events for World AIDS Day is Seeds of Heaing, Inc., an HIV awareness and advocacy nonprofit based in Wilmington, N.C. The organization will have eight panels displayed virtually, a socially-distanced event for locals and HIV screening during the first week of December.
The year 2020 marks the 40th year since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S. Since then, nearly 700,000 lives have been lost to AIDS. After about eight months, the U.S. has lost more than 225,000 people to COVID-19.
Gert McMullin, the Quilt conservator and production manager for the National AIDS Memorial, knows what this loss feels like.
“About 33 years ago, my friends were the very first to die [of AIDS] in San Francisco,” McMullin said. “It is easier for me to deal with COVID-19 because I know what a pandemic can be like. I think [the HIV and AIDS community and cause] have been brought into the spotlight a bit more because this is the second [pandemic] we have had to go through in our lifetime.”
Although the coronavirus is quick to spread, the two illnesses received analogous responses from the government and people in the U.S.
“At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, they were calling it the ‘gay virus.’ What we see today is the ‘China virus,’” Herglotz said. “This stigma and this discrimination and this hate that sometimes comes out of people, it’s something we thought we learned 40 years ago never to repeat. We see the same things happening today.”
Herglotz also noted that both HIV and COVID-19 have had a disproportionate impact on people of color.
LeShonda Wallace, the founder and executive director of Seeds of Healing, Inc., hopes to illustrate this fact in her quilt panel. Her mother — an African-American woman named Luwana Daniels and nicknamed “Pumpkin” — was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990 and died from it in 1998. Throughout life, Daniels dealt with the stigma of having the disease. That stigma, according to Wallace, was “a barrier to [Daniels] seeking care.”
Before Daniels died, she decided she wanted to talk about her disease to make sure no one else went through what she did. Wallace honors this in her panel.
“The quilt I made is an opportunity to share those hidden voices,” Wallace said. “My quilt is the image of an African-American woman; it has an ethnic appearance in regards to not only our skin tone, but our hair texture, things that make us as people of color unique. I want to display the image of a community and group that is heavily impacted.” The quilt panel Wallace is making is one of at least 1,104 panels made by North Carolina panel makers.
Another commonality between the two pandemics is that they received similar responses from the government.
“This year, we see a government that hasn’t responded and wasn’t prepared; the political leaders ignored [the pandemic] and thought it would go away,” Herglotz said. “Forty years ago, we had the same reaction from political leaders towards the AIDS pandemic.”
World AIDS Day
On Dec. 1, the National AIDS Memorial will honor Drs. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and David D. Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University, with the National Recognition Leadership Award.
“These two individuals have stood at the forefront in the fight against HIV/AIDS for more than four decades, and today stand on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19,” Cunningham said in the press release. “We are honored to recognize their tireless work on World AIDS Day this year as we pull the thread that connects these two pandemics, particularly around science, loss of life, health and social justice.”
The World AIDS Day event typically happens in San Francisco, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. Instead, starting at 1 p.m. EST on Dec. 1, there will be various virtual talks and presentations — all free to the public — ranging on topics from “Medical and Scientific Leadership” with Drs. Fauci and Ho to “A Look to the Future” with intergenerational leaders coming together to discuss “the way a nation responds, heals and remembers those lost to both pandemics” to honor World AIDS Day.
Wallace wants people to hold on to a message leading up to and on World AIDS Day, as well as after the events: “You’re not alone. We are all in this pandemic together.”
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