Lessons from the HIV Epidemic Can Help Fight COVID-19: an Interview with Michael Seltzer

“In our response to pandemics, we are not just exposing the weaknesses in the system, we’re highlighting solutions that need to transcend the period.” Michael Seltzer

For those of us working in HIV philanthropy, advocacy, and research, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the present coronavirus pandemic. Both disproportionately affect people of color and those living in poverty. Both received a lagging government response. And both have been accompanied by misinformation, fear, and stigmatization of those believed to be infected.

While the spread of HIV never required social distancing on a global scale, the virus – which has killed 32 million people over the last 40 years – has taught us valuable lessons that can be applied in our immediate circumstances to save lives today. FCAA’s current Executive Director John Barnes, recently spoke with our founding Executive Director Michael Seltzer, who led the organization during the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic in the late 80s, to identify the biggest takeaways to help us fight COVID-19.

1) Use customized messages and messengers.

“When HIV was growing in Harlem, we realized the best communicators to black women were their hair stylists in the beauty salons – not doctors or nurses,” says Seltzer. With COVID-19, when college students hear a middle-aged politician like Andrew Cuomo telling them to stay off the beach, it is no surprise that they aren’t getting the message. Complex scientific language is also not likely to resonate. Instead, governments should use messengers who connect with the audience they are trying to reach. Recruiting celebrities like Lady Gaga or Beyoncé to talk to young people about social distancing—using simple, everyday language devoid of jargon—is more effective than a speech from a politician or public health expert.  

2) Offer services through existing funding categories.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, one of FCAA’s core messages was that HIV affects every category that foundations fund: housing, mental health, human services, and civil rights, to name a few. The same is true of COVID-19. Instead of creating a separate program for coronavirus relief, find ways to offer services through existing funding areas. Solutions can be found horizontally rather than vertically or within silos.

Listen to Michael talk about FCAA’s early talking points

3) Focus the response on the most vulnerable populations.

We have talked for many years about the underlying drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—racism and poverty, to name a few. Many of these are impacting the current crisis as well. That is why we must remember to prioritize advocacy, human rights, and vulnerable populations in the response to COVID-19.  American Jewish World Service is translating a long history of disaster-relief grantmaking to protect essential needs of vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 crisis within the countries they fund, including prioritizing legal support and advocacy for people whose rights are being denied.

4) Support unrestricted funding.

Spring has historically been the season for organizations to raise unrestricted revenue through special events, like AIDS walks and galas. With these on hold, frontline organizations are seeing their funding decrease at a time when they’re being asked to do more in response to COVID-19. Without these resources—which are almost entirely derived from private sector philanthropy—advocacy, not to mention salaries or simply keeping the lights on, may not be possible. The Council on Foundations have provided helpful guidance on how to convert program grants to general operating support.

5) Fighting coronavirus will require public policy and advocacy work.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, we learned that providing services and education alone is not enough. It fell to our community to influence policy decisions and hold governments accountable to ensure that progress was sustainable. Fighting COVID-19 will require a similar approach. By amplifying the voices of those affected, we can influence leaders to create policies that protect vulnerable populations, essential workers, small businesses, and nonprofits. Funders, such as the California Wellness Foundation, have included, in addition to support for essential services, a focus on public policy and advocacy support to help counter COVID-19-based racism, increase access to timely and accurate information, and support critical non-profit advocacy efforts.

6) Think globally, act locally.
Stopping a global pandemic isn’t possible unless millions of individuals take action at the local level. So much of the progress we have achieved over the past four decades has occurred at the community level. And we are seeing the same thing happen today. As our national leaders were slow to act, it was those at the local level who were leading against the virus. This can only happen when we empower communities with the information they need to protect them and help their neighbors. Trusted local leaders should be designated to share information, debunk rumors, and collect feedback.

7) The enemy is the virus, not the patient, nor any group of people.

In addition to fueling stigma, phrases like “super-spreader” and “Chinese virus” alienate people and make them less willing to be tested or help those in need. It also sounds suspiciously like the stigmatizing terms we heard at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Given our experience, our community bears a responsibility for mitigating this stigma. We must continually speak up, reminding the world that the enemy is the virus, not a particular person, community, or nationality.  As one example, FCAA recently signed onto a letter, led by Asian Americans in Philanthropy: The Cure to Viral Racism Is Within Our Hands.

8) Pandemics don’t recognize borders.

AIDS certainly did not appreciate national borders, nor does coronavirus. In today’s globalized world, it is almost impossible to contain a disease within one country or region. For that reason, nations must work together to share knowledge and resources to slow the spread. The AIDS epidemic saw the birth of organizations like PEPFAR and the Global Fund along with other incredible funding and advocacy organizations that work across borders on a coordinated worldwide response. Similar coordination is required now, as countries that have eliminated COVID-19 will inevitably see new infections as travel restarts. We must ensure that all countries have the tools to prevent its return and that transparent communication is possible. Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) is closely monitoring how philanthropy is addressing the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on immigrant populations.


9) Epidemics don’t only affect those who are infected.

Responding to an epidemic goes beyond treating patients and preventing the spread of disease. A deadly virus leaves grieving family members, orphaned children, and economic hardship in its wake. We witnessed AIDS decimate entire communities. Now, we must remember to support those affected by COVID-19, as well as the patients themselves. It is not only testing and treatment that must be funded, but programs that address more holistic needs. M.A.C Viva Glam Fund recently announced $10,000,000 in support for existing partners to expand their ability to provide vital services such as access to food, especially for immunocompromised populations.

10) Identify weaknesses in the healthcare system and create new solutions.

In the 1980s, a hospice worker founded the New York nonprofit God’s Love We Deliver, which provides free meals to people with life-threatening illnesses like AIDS. At the time, the Meals on Wheels program was only available to people over 65, leaving a major gap in the healthcare system. Decades later, COVID-19 is also exposing the weaknesses of our current healthcare system. In the United States, we are lacking testing kits, protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and hospital beds, to name a few. With limited help from the government, many individuals and organizations are beginning to create their own solutions by making homemade masks or donating to people’s medical expenses. Some organizations, like Levi Strauss & Co., are also finding ways to help address the  shortage of PPE, like medical-grade masks, that health workers need.

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