World AIDS Day in the time of COVID-19

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A small portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
A small portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt

40 years later we remember 

World AIDS Day 2020: A National Conversation flyer
World AIDS Day 2020: A National Conversation

Today marks 40 years since the first AIDS cases were reported, a pandemic that has led to nearly 700,000 lives lost and still no cure. 40 years later, we have a president that behaved like Ronald Reagan. Reagan denied HIV and AIDS existed. And you have Donald Trump, now, after he contracted COVID-19, denying the severity of the coronavirus. People are dying because of that same type of rhetoric, just as people died 40 years ago.

Historically, each year on World AIDS Day (December 1), the National AIDS Memorial Quilt team works with hundreds of partners to arrange more than 1,000 in-person Quilt displays across the country at universities, places of worship, museums, businesses, and community centers to honor and remember loved ones lost to AIDS. This year, for health and safety reasons, that isn’t possible due to COVID-19.

“World AIDS Day is taking on new meaning this year, as COVID-19 has brought an enormous loss of life and grief to millions of people,” said John Cunningham, executive director of the National AIDS Memorial. “During the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, the Quilt was a source of comfort and inspiration and was used as a tool for social activism to open the eyes of the nation to injustice and to help survivors grieve and heal. Through this exhibition, we hope the power and beauty of the Quilt can serve that same purpose for those who are experiencing loss and grief due to COVID-19.”

“You look at the bigotry and the stigma, we have COVID-19, the China virus, and in the 1980’s we had the gay virus,” said Kevin Herglotz, National AIDS Memorial Director of Communications. “There are many similarities between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, and how our leaders handled both situations. Lessons that you think should have been learned, but haven’t been.”

To mark this year’s World AIDS Day there will be a distinguished list of guest speakers, video storytelling, musical tributes, and of course, the virtual AIDS Quilt exhibit. Topics and conversations about how a nation should respond and heal, and lessons learned during a time like this will be discussed.

International map covered in red ribbons
World AIDS Day candle light walk locations

Many people don’t realize that it took a decade to reach 200,000 lives lost to AIDS. But in a matter of months, COVID-19 reached those numbers. Most of those people haven’t been able to heal or to say goodbye. Most of those people died alone.

This year marks the first year that the Quilt hasn’t been displayed. And local-level organizations usually use the Quilt for fundraising to help support programs. Proceeds from the exhibition are used to ensure the continued care and conservation of more than 48,000 individual panels of this national treasure. In-person Quilt displays account for more than half of the Quilt’s annual operating budget. Additional support for the Quilt and its programs are funded through the generous support from Gilead Sciences, Vivent Health, and other partners. The Quilt is also one of the most notable forms of activism and healing. If you lay the Quilt out today, it would be more than 50 miles long, with each panel the size of a gravesite.

“Even though nothing can replace seeing our beautiful Quilt in person, this virtual exhibition allows us to share the Quilt and its stories. [This is] just as we have done for three decades around World AIDS Day,” Gert McMullan, a co-founder of the Quilt and Quilt Conservator at the National AIDS Memorial, said.

During the event, the National AIDS Memorial will honor Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and David D. Ho, M.D., Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University, with its National Recognition Leadership Award. Both Dr. Fauci and Dr. Ho have been at the forefront of medical breakthroughs for four decades. They will be recognized for their lifelong commitment, work, and the profound impact they have had for more than four decades and two pandemics in advancing science, treatments, and education around both diseases.

In trying to describe the difficulties of planning a virtual event this year, Herglotz said: “You can’t be there for anyone. Not being able to touch and help in-person is probably the most challenging part. Usually, you’re able to hug and cry and laugh and be together as a community. Not being able to be together as an organization is challenging. When you can’t do that, you look for other ways to inspire. You look for different ways to heal. We hope that this World AIDS day can do that. The whole idea of bringing the Quilt virtually will allow so many people who may not have seen it before to see it. We want to make sure leaders learn so that this doesn’t happen again.”

World AIDS Day ad with details 2020
Powerful, Inspirational Voices On The Frontlines Of The AIDS And Covid-19 Pandemics

World AIDS Day 2020—A National Conversation will be presented virtually at aidsmemorial.org at 10 am EDT on December 1. The event will be free to the public.

  • Highlights include:
  • Medical and Scientific Leadership—Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. David Ho will lead a conversation about medical and scientific advancements during pandemics and offer essential insights into the health, research, and long-term impacts of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.
  • Impact on Marginalized Communities—A conversation on how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have disproportionately affected communities of color and the systemic barriers that compound poor health outcomes.
  • Activism that Sparks Change and Movements—A discussion with leaders whose actions have made a difference during pandemics demanding social and health justice.
  • A Look to the Future—Voices from two generations of leaders coming together to help shape how a nation responds, heals, and remembers those lost to both pandemics.

Rev Naomi Washington Leaphart will also be giving the convocation this year.

Each year, World AIDS Day brings people together to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS, show their support for people living with HIV, and commemorate lives lost.

The National AIDS Memorial is looked upon as the organization within the national landscape to remember, honor, and help ensure the AIDS pandemic stories are never forgotten.

To learn more about the National AIDS Memorial World AIDS Day commemoration, the virtual AIDS Quilt exhibition and how to participate and support the events, please visit aidsmemorial.org/wad2020.