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Guest Opinion: From one pandemic to another

by Mike Smith

A screenshot of the new virtual display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Photo: Courtesy National AIDS Memorial Grove
A screenshot of the new virtual display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Photo: Courtesy National AIDS Memorial Grove  

For the first World AIDS Day on December 1, 1988 the World Health Organization gave a small grant to the fledgling Names Project (its AIDS Memorial Quilt being then a little more than a year old). WHO thought it would be enough to send a person or two to Geneva and one other place with quilt panels (in business class, of course), to help visually unite the world around AIDS on that day. Well, we cashed the check, bought 10 cheap discount tickets, found couches to crash on, stuffed quilt panels into two duffle bags each and displayed quilts that day in eight countries on five continents.

Jack Caster went to London; Lance Henderson and Gert McMullin went to Geneva; Marcus Faigle and Jeannette Koijane to Brazil. Scott Lago laid out quilt sections in the Great Hall of the United Nations in New York; Nancy Katz flew to Halifax, Sue Baelen to Germany, Danny Sauro and Garth Wall to Norway. I loaded up a bag for Australia and laid out quilt sections in front of the Sydney Opera House. (Thanks to a network of conspiring gay flight attendants worldwide, not a single one of us paid excess baggage fees!)

On every World AIDS Day since then, more than half the quilt has been on display in hundreds (in some years, thousands) of venues across the country, opening hearts and minds, honoring our dead, and finding new allies in the fight — telling the story of a compassionate community response to a pandemic, and inspiring action.

With COVID-19 this year, nearly all 48,000 panels are sitting on the shelves. But the pandemic cannot silence us! On World AIDS Day the National AIDS Memorial Grove, which took over stewardship of the quilt last year, will host the first-ever virtual exhibition of the quilt. The exhibition will feature over 10,000 quilt panels representing all 50 states and U.S. territories.

We hope to use the power and beauty of the quilt to help our nation heal during these difficult times. This historic virtual exhibition will also help us bring the quilt to so many people in a year when we can't do in-person displays. Community partners across the country have curated their own personalized and localized online displays, and they can all be seen together now. The exhibition will run through March 31.

Like the quilt, the National AIDS Memorial Grove has also played an outsized role in past World AIDS Days. Each year, the staff and board of the grove produce the country's most visible World AIDS Day commemoration, leading the nation and drawing hundreds into a gigantic tent in the grove, which is located in Golden Gate Park.

This year the grove is quieter than usual, a place for personal contemplation with no public gatherings. But our voices will still be heard on the national stage, unbowed by COVID-19. On December 1 online, the World AIDS Day National Conversation will bring together powerful voices from the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics for an inspiring national discussion about health justice, social activism, remembrance, hope, and resilience.

The broadcast will spotlight the interconnectedness of both pandemics — the lives lost, the survivors, the activism, and the heroes. Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. David Ho are our keynote speakers. Actress Judith Light will be our host. The health justice forum will feature mayors from across the country, AIDS activist Cleve Jones, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Marked by COVID co-founder Kristin Urquiza. They will join a distinguished list of other special guests, video storytelling, and musical tributes, as we explore how a nation confronts, responds, and heals, and the lessons that must be learned for the future. You can watch this free event beginning at 10 a.m. Pacific Time Tuesday, December 1, .

Those darkest early days of AIDS took a terrible toll. We lost so many, so young, and so quickly. And many of us who carried on were scarred for life. I survived by pushing that pain into a box, inside a box, inside a box within me. In the isolation of COVID-19, I find those emotions now welling up from deep inside, angry to be living through a second pandemic and suddenly grieving again for friends lost in my 20s and 30s. Now I'm losing newer friends to COVID-19 as time pushes me ever deeper into a second high-risk pool.

But these two gigantic virtual events that were pulled together in just a few months are showing me once again the leadership, creativity, resilience, and fortitude of our community in battling a pandemic. We were not defeated by AIDS, and we will not be defeated by COVID-19.

Through the miracle of technology, the virtual quilt display will allow more people to experience the quilt than during any other World AIDS Day, even while all the fabric still sits quietly in a warehouse. And with the online World AIDS Day National Conversation replacing the gathering in the grove? Well, that tent just got a whole lot bigger.

Mike Smith is a co-founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and was executive director of AIDS Emergency Fund and Breast Cancer Emergency Fund from 2002 to 2015. Over the last year, he has been assisting the National AIDS Memorial Grove in its new role as stewards of the quilt.

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