COVID-19

What It’s Like Living With HIV During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I realized that both the stigma against HIV and complacency amid the pandemic come from the same place — ignorance.
January 13, 2021, 8:38am
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Collage: VICE / Images: Amahl S. Azwar

I have this relative who washes — no, scrubs — all of her dishes whenever a cousin of mine, who is HIV-positive, pays her house a visit. Our family has told her that HIV cannot be transmitted through sharing utensils or touching, but she heard none of it. Later on, when my cousin with HIV was hospitalized for meningitis, the same relative’s husband told visitors to take a bath to make sure they weren’t infected by disease. While my cousin survived the meningitis, so did the stigma around HIV. 

I myself have been living with HIV for the past seven years. I know that my immune system is compromised and that I need to be more careful than most people when it comes to health. I’ve been pretty good in dealing with this, but then the pandemic hit and everything was magnified. People with weakened immune systems, like me, are among those who are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Now, I have to make sure that my CD4 count — the white blood cells that fight infection — is high enough to fight the coronavirus. And the only way for me to keep it up is by taking antiretroviral drugs daily, as prescribed by my doctor.

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I take COVID-19 restrictions very seriously. Even though I was never a neat freak, I began washing my hands regularly, wearing face masks whenever necessary, and practicing social distancing. I was in Thailand when the COVID-19 pandemic began and staying safe was relatively easy there. 

I moved to Chiang Mai with my partner Robert in 2018, after spending four years in Shanghai. We both enjoyed our new life in the northern Thai city and, in a relatively short amount of time, we managed to make good friends and strong connections. But in August 2019, Robert was diagnosed with brain cancer, and the doctor told us that he would probably have less than a year left to live.

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With Robert, before his cancer diagnosis. Photo: Courtesy of Amahl S. Azwar​

I suddenly became his primary caretaker. We focused all our energy into making sure that he got the best possible care and, more importantly, lived a happy life. But HIV stigma followed us everywhere. Upon learning that we were a couple, hospital staff required Robert to take an HIV test. He remained HIV-negative until his last breath but Robert left us in March last year, just as the world braced itself for a health crisis. 

Weeks before we moved him to hospice, cases of COVID-19 began to spread. The very same week he died, the Thai government introduced health protocols, like limiting the number of people at gatherings. When Robert passed, only 10 people were allowed to attend his funeral. It was a lovely service but a bit sad because I was hoping for more friends to grieve with. I never thought my partner would pass away before me, so I was not prepared for this. 

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Our commitment ceremony, months before Robert's passing. Photo: Courtesy of Amahl S. Azwar​

I couldn’t live in our house anymore because it reminded me too much of Robert, so I moved to a studio apartment. Then the Thai government imposed a lockdown that kept me from all the things I planned to do while dealing with grief. There was a curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and an immediate closure of bars, which meant no open mic nights where I could pour my heart out with cheesy songs or poems. Night clubs and gyms were shut down, so I couldn’t dance the pain away or sweat out the anger. I couldn’t travel to other provinces, so no weekend visits to Bangkok. 

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A Zoom call with my family. Photo: Courtesy of Amahl S. Azwar​

The world was changing and I was all alone. Everyone started wearing masks in grocery stores and shop clerks checked every customer’s body temperature. This coincided with the smokey season, when farmers burn their fields to prepare for the following year. The air quality in Chiang Mai was so bad that even outdoor activities that could be done in solitary, such as walking in the park, became inconvenient. To say that I was depressed during this time would be an understatement. Just when I needed to be around as many friends as possible, I was forced to live in isolation. So I kept myself busy. I cooked. I baked. I sang. I found a Facebook group for karaoke enthusiasts so I posted my singing videos there. Looking back, while it was hard, it was all worth it because Thailand’s number of COVID-19 cases remained relatively low. I’m grateful that despite my pre-existing condition, I’m still safe and healthy. 

I decided to leave Thailand for two reasons, one emotional and one practical. Chiang Mai reminded me too much of Robert, and my visa was about to expire. I needed to go back home to Indonesia. I was worried — of the rising COVID-19 cases there and the stigma I would get as someone gay and HIV-positive. Compared to Thailand, Indonesia is still quite conservative and closed off on the issue.

“I was worried — of the rising COVID-19 cases there and the stigma I would get as someone gay and HIV-positive.”

I determined that Bali was the only place in Indonesia where I could feel comfortable, since people on the island are generally more tolerant toward  minorities, including LGBTQ. But the struggle to stay healthy in Bali was real. 

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Bali bound. Photo: Courtesy of Amahl S. Azwar​

I found out that, at one point, the supply of antiretroviral drugs in Bali dipped, so I bought several bottles from a clinic in Chiang Mai before leaving, to make sure I am well-stocked in case it happens again. The only reason I’ve survived seven years with HIV is because I’ve been taking my meds religiously. I couldn’t stop now, not with COVID-19 still going around, and not while living in a place where people are too nonchalant about the pandemic. 

In Thailand, gym staff check your temperature and make sure everyone’s wearing a mask before entering the facility. They also prepare bottles of disinfectant to use after touching weights. I haven’t seen that in Bali. Here, people come and go and most don’t bother with wearing a mask. During a couple of visits to the gym, I didn’t see anyone wipe their sweat after using the equipment. I also once visited an area near the beach in the southern part of Bali, and noticed that most people were not wearing face masks and that nobody was washing their hands using the sink in the premises. Because of these instances, I’ve started to limit the number of times I go out. 

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I feel much safer at home nowadays, working while cuddling my cat. Photo: Courtesy of Amahl S. Azwar​

After speaking to people, I learned that many didn’t care about the health protocols because they didn’t think COVID-19 was as bad as it seemed. Then I realized that both the stigma against HIV and complacency amid the pandemic come from the same place — ignorance. And in this case, it is not at all bliss. 

“Then I realized that both the stigma against HIV and complacency amid the pandemic come from the same place — ignorance. And in this case, it is not at all bliss.”

At the beach, I wondered to myself, how would these people react if I tell them that I’m HIV positive? Will they shake my hand? Hug me? Will they distance themselves from me? I toyed with the idea of going to a gathering in Bali and telling everyone that I had HIV, just to see their reaction.

I wish people would educate themselves and trust science. To learn that HIV is not transmittable by a cough but COVID-19 is, that hugging someone with HIV is OK, but not wearing a face mask during a pandemic is a risk. 

As for my relatives, the last time I checked, they hosted a birthday gathering with the coronavirus still going around. I did not see any masks in the Facebook pictures. I wonder if they washed — no, scrubbed — all of the dishes this time.