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The plague of COVID-19 is often compared to the influenza epidemic of a hundred years ago. Less often mentioned are commonalities between COVID-19 and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Perhaps the similarities are not so apparent because now, at least in economically advantaged countries, the risk from AIDS seems restricted to smaller, more marginalized groups of people. In addition, we now have more effective treatment for AIDS than for COVID-19.
Nonetheless, important similarities between the effects of AIDS and what we see in COVID-19 are brought to light in Makkai’s Stonewall Award-winning novel, The Great Believers. Though primarily set in Chicago in the 1980s, intermittent shifts to 2015 Paris facilitate the presentation of both immediate and long-term effects. Among the parallels which Makkai’s work allows to be seen are the complex interplay of denial and fear—individuals take precautions…until they don’t; the fact that safety decisions are not just for protecting one’s self but about protecting  loved ones and society as a whole; the observation that those making the strongest public stance for safety are sometimes in violation privately; and the medical- and stress-related risks to health care workers.
The following two passages present yet another shared aspect of these epidemics—the range of psychological responses among those touched by the disease. In these passages Makkai illustrates two strikingly different long-term psychological reactions to the illness and the deaths of friends and family. One is depicted through Fiona, a survivor who was not portrayed as being at medical risk but who cared for afflicted loved ones, including her gay older brother for whom she had become the only link to their family after he was ostracized even before the AIDS epidemic. The other is seen in Julian, who had been part of Fiona’s and her brother’s social circle and was profoundly ill with AIDS but regained his health after the development of “good” drugs. When, in 2015, Fiona is unexpectedly reunited with Julian, whom she had assumed had died long ago, we see that it is the caretaker, Fiona, whose life was more compromised by the epidemic.
In this first passage Fiona, whose career has been the management of a resale shop dedicated to raising funds for an AIDS charity, expresses her grief and pain through anger.
In her current life, it happened at least once a week that someone would wander into the store and then, when they discovered its mission, say something like “Oh, I remember that time!” Fiona had learned to check her temper, to push her toes into the floor so her face didn’t change. “I knew someone whose cousin had it!” they’d continue. “Did you ever see Philadelphia?” And they’d shake their heads in dismay. And how could she answer? They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out? (p. 184)
In the second passage the contrast between the long-term effects of the epidemic on Fiona and Julian becomes apparent.
For a long time—you’ll appreciate this, Fiona. For a long time, I wondered if I was a ghost. A literal ghost. I thought I must’ve died and this was some kind of purgatory or heaven. Because how was it even possible, you know? But then I thought: If this is heaven, where are all my friends? It couldn’t be heaven if Yale and Nico and everyone weren’t there. So I guess this is just plain old earth. And I’m still on it.” Serge excused himself to answer the phone. He’d been texting all day, and although all his acquaintances seemed accounted for, not all of their acquaintances were, and there were still urgent and worrisome things to be discussed. Julian said, “My husband had basically the same experience. He calls this his second life. To me that sounds too born-again, but then he didn’t grow up in the South. He’s right, though; that’s what it feels like.” There was a ring, a golden wedding band, on Julian’s left hand. How utterly strange that Julian could have a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She’d been tending the graveyard alone, oblivious to the fact that the world had moved on, that one of the graves had been empty the whole time. (p. 359)
Makkai, Rebecca (2018) The Great Believers. New York: Viking.