‘People are dying alone’: A former AIDS chaplain on life under lockdown

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 17 April 2020 16:47 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO Members of Mexico's HIV/AIDS social organizations light candles during a vigil under the slogan "Two nations, One Heart" to remember those killed by HIV/AIDS and deliver prevention measures to citizens over the Santa Fe international bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

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'This sense of loneliness and isolation I think is one of the hardest parts of this crisis'

This is the fourth article in a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting  vulnerable people around the world. 

MEXICO CITY, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As coronavirus lockdowns are imposed around the world, LGBT+ groups are working hard to support older members of the community who are more likely to live alone and suffer from poor health than their straight peers.

2011 survey of older gay and trans people by the University of Washington found more than half had experienced loneliness.

Vida Alegre is the only community centre for LGBT+ elders in Mexico City, and one of the few such places in Latin America. But as coronavirus cases rise it has been forced to shut its doors.

Its chaplain Vincent Schwahn, an Episcopal priest originally from the United States who is openly gay, worked as a chaplain counseling the sick and dying during the AIDS crisis.

With a new and deadly pandemic now threatening his community, Schwahn is preparing for the worst.

This is his story:

"It was with a heavy heart that we closed the doors to Vida Alegre last month due to the coronavirus crisis.

We tried to hold on as long as we could, but I realized that we were doing a disservice to people. We needed to protect our community, who are among the most vulnerable to this deadly disease.

But knowing it was the right thing to do didn't make it any easier: now, many of them are stuck inside and alone, fearful of the outside world and the impending epidemic.

This sense of loneliness and isolation I think is one of the hardest parts of this crisis.

I lived through the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s while working as a chaplain, first in New York and then in Minneapolis, and I find myself experiencing an echo of that time.

Every single day for six years of my life, someone died. Every, single, day. It was like a pressure cooker - I couldn’t deal with any more grief.

Now, as I read the news and watch the number of dead tick up exponentially in New York City, I feel like it’s happening all over again, the dark shadow hanging over us.

There are terrible differences, of course.

The intensity of the coronavirus pandemic for one. The virus is spreading with such speed all over the world, with people dying within days or weeks of contracting the disease.

With AIDS, it was a slow burn: it would take about a year for people to go.

And while the mortality rate of COVID-19 is still relatively low, AIDS was truly a death sentence: once you had it, that was it.

Governments on both sides of the border have also been too slow to react in the face of the pandemic.

But while it’s taken months in some cases for our leaders to take action on coronavirus, during the AIDS crisis it took years for authorities to step in, while thousands of gay men died.

It was only when straight people started getting sick that people finally started getting the help we’d been crying out for.

But the biggest difference is the loneliness of this new disease.

During the AIDS crisis, I accompanied many, many people to their graves. I spent so much time helping people to die, and to die well.

Many were estranged from their families, but at least members of their community could sit with them at their deathbed - to be able to do that is very powerful.

This time, things are much more tragic in that people are dying alone.

The highly contagious nature of the coronavirus means family and friends aren’t allowed to visit in hospitals. In many countries, you can’t even hold funerals.

Learning how to grieve and face your own demise, facing the reality of death, we have an innate need to do that, and this virus is depriving us of that ability to process our loss.

And meanwhile, the survivors and those not yet infected must also sit alone, isolated in our houses to wait.

But there is one thing that unites these two pandemics: the sense of communities coming  together. 

We’ve seen it all over the world, from the Italians singing on their balconies to Brits clapping their healthcare workers, I think people are reaching for ways to come together.

Here at Vida Alegre, even though our physical doors are shut, the community is still working together.

We have brigades of people who are taking food to our regulars, we have a wonderful WhatsApp group of people sending little memes and pictures, and we have people making phone calls to anyone who is on their own. There’s a network of support.

Still, in Mexico we are at the very start of this pandemic, and I’m wondering what it will look like when we start having more cases of people dying from the virus.

I want to protect myself, I’m 61, so I don’t want to get sick. But just as a doctor’s job is to save lives, a priest’s job is to attend people spiritually, whenever that is. That’s my job, that’s who I am.

The thing that I’m really grateful for is that I have the experience - I’ve been through this before. So I’m not anxious about what’s happening. I’m just trying to be a support one day at a time.

And I think that’s all we can do - be available to each other.

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