• Survivors of the HIV/AIDs epidemic share three life-saving lessons for coping with COVID-19.
  • The HIV/AIDS epidemic changed American culture. Since 1981, 75 million people have had the HIV virus and approximately 32 million have died.
  • Everything from practicing compassion to developing tolerance can help you get through this tough time.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

From overwhelmed hospital systems to mass panic and virus-related stigma, the issues arising from COVID-19 have changed life permanently. Experts have touted this crisis as the “new normal” as a result.

But, for older generations of LGBTQ people, these issues are all too familiar.

Joey Terrill is the director of community partnerships at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a non-profit offering AIDS prevention and patient advocacy services in Los Angeles, California.

Terrill, 64, told Business Insider that LGBTQ seniors who survived the AIDS epidemic have the life experience needed for battling COVID-19.

“I felt like when AIDs hit, it was war. It was wartime and I had to step up and be a soldier in that war, and I’m still a soldier to this day,” Terrill said.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic not only claimed millions of lives, but drastically changed public life. Since 1981, 75 million people have had the HIV virus and approximately 32 million have died. Although the coronavirus pandemic has killed almost 90,000 people in the US, the death toll of HIV/AIDs is still more far-reaching, Business Insider reported.

And coronavirus is not stigmatized in the same manner as AIDS. People living with HIV still experience discrimination like being denied health services or isolation from their families, according to the CDC. This stigma comes from a fear of HIV. Nearly one in every eight people living with HIV have been denied health care because of discrimination, shows a 2017 report from the global HIV advocacy organization UNAIDs.

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The LGBTQ seniors interviewed below experienced this firsthand – they have all dedicated their careers, either in public health or the arts, to fighting HIV stigma.

Business Insider asked them to reflect on the lessons they learned from that era. Here’s what helped them survive.

1. Learn to have compassion for others

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Foto: Davidson Garrett. Source: Courtesy Davidson Garrett

One of the easiest ways to support someone through a health crisis is through acts of service.

Davidson Garrett, 67, a poet and former taxi driver, said that, during the AIDS epidemic, many in the queer community were linked to someone living with HIV/AIDS. He recalled rushing his friends who were HIV positive to the hospital and running errands for them. Garrett even helped fulfill his friend’s last wish to listen to opera while on his death bed.

“He could barely move in his hospital bed, but he wanted me to be near him to listen to opera cause that’s what we did together,” Garrett said. “What I did learn from the AIDS crisis is that we all can be a part of the solution.”

“I certainly don’t have a cure for HIV,” he added. “I’m not a medical doctor, but I could be there for somebody emotionally.”

Now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, Garrett recommends reaching out by phone to families who have relatives battling COVID-19.

“With the coronavirus, you can’t really be there with that person,” Garrett said. “Call their families and let them know that you’re thinking of them and get them some compassion and love.”

2. Develop a sense of urgency in your life

During the AIDS crisis, Terrill, director of the Aids Healthcare Foundation, said he learned the importance of urgency when working with his first AIDs-related client at a center for vision loss. He said that most AIDS/HIV patients didn’t have the luxury of time for spaced out appointments.

“They don’t have two weeks – they could be dead in two weeks,” recalled Terrill, who noted that the patient had a packed schedule of necessary appointments. “It was the immediacy of the way that AIDS was affecting people that altered the way we were providing services.”

To remedy these issues, Terrill began offering at-home appointments, which were more convenient and accessible for patients. Now, the medical system is facing a similar issue, where speedy care is necessary for survival.

“Prior to a pandemic like this, we are all pretty complacent,” Terrill said. “We go about our daily lives and we never really think about the idea of transmitting a virus from touching or not touching something.”

Terrill said that people can prioritize their behaviors and weigh the risks. During the coronavirus pandemic, the public is learning how adhering to basic hygiene – such as washing their hands or wearing a mask in public – can potentially save another person’s life.

“The urgency relates to how we can allow ourselves to get sick and die or not. Do we care if our neighbors get sick, [or] die or not?” Terrill said. “That, to me, is the urgency over whether or not I’m going to complain about not being able to go to see my sports team, or being able to go to the club and drink.”

3. Practice tolerance

During the AIDs epidemic, Steve Karpiak, 74, the managing director of the Gay Men’s Health Center in New York said he became “numb” to hearing people were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Now, elders who survived that era struggle with isolation related to their HIV status.

“They are alone, they are depressed, don’t have good mental health care and their community has abandoned them,” said Karpiak. “The fear of HIV/AIDs continues to this day.”

“Someone will go home to visit their family member and there’s a newborn child and they will not let the person pick up the child or eat off the same dishes or utensils,” he added.

Elders may also not have their needs prioritized because of their ages. Karpiak said COVID-19 has only heightened incidences of age discrimination in the US. In March, Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, who is 70 years old, told Fox New Host Tucker Carlson the restrictions on the economy were worse than dying, and said “those of us who are 70+” would “take care of ourselves.”

“But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that,” he added.

Karpiak said these statements are “outrageous.” He added, “We tend to think about older folks as being disposable.” Going forward, Karpiak hopes people can learn the importance of treating elders as valuable.

“How we take care of our elderly are telling about who we are,” he added.

And although COVID-19 has hit the LGBTQ community especially hard, many still find lending a hand to others is the best tool for uniting on the frontlines.

“We need to care for each other more,” Karpiak said. He added: “Caregiving is an important part of our social fabric.”