The Covid Pietà

An image of an elderly man with Covid harkens back to an earlier photo of a young man on his deathbed with AIDS. Can one era inform the other?

Americans aren’t “hardened” to Coronavirus deaths. For most of us, the deaths were never real in the first place. Sure, if you lived in New York City, you probably knew people who got seriously ill, or worse. Still, even many New Yorkers went back to business as usual once the perceived threat had abated. But what about the rest of us?

I knew one woman who died early on, a friend of a friend in NYC who I’d met a few times over dinner. Other than her, nothing close to home until last week, when my cousin’s husband in Oklahoma almost died of Covid. Also a week ago, my sister in Chicago told me her high school friend was on death’s door from Covid, not expected to recover. After nearly nine months of this virus, it’s only begun to become real for a lot of Americans.

But that’s not the only reason that America’s 285,000+ recorded Coronavirus deaths aren’t weighing as heavily on the American mind. Because of the very nature of this virus, the deaths it causes are hidden from view. Even family members often aren’t present when their loved ones pass. But America was offered a rare glimpse of the virus’ human toll last month when Dr. Joseph Varon shared a photo of an elderly Covid patient he was comforting like a modern-day Pietà:

For those familiar with the early years of the AIDS crisis, the image of Dr. Varon immediately evoked memories of Therese Frare’s haunting and game-changing photo of David Kirby being mourned by his grieving family on his deathbed in 1990. Frare’s photo is credited with humanizing AIDS for nearly one billion people worldwide.

“There’s no question that photos increase people’s ability to be compassionate,” said Alan Klein, an early member of ACT UP/NY, who is now a communications and technology consultant. “It brings it to your living room so you can identify with it.”

The Italian clothing company Benetton, with the Kirby family’s permission, (in)famously used the photo in a controversial ad campaign in 1992 that was met with outrage from many AIDS activists, but which I find, at least in retrospect, brilliant. Oliviero Toscani, former Creative Director, Benetton Group explains:

“I don’t think that AIDS activists were more activist than me, that’s the point…. I had a big company investing money to make AIDS aware in the world…. Tell you client to do that, my dear friend from Advertising — tell your client to do that, to invest in a problem we should be solving.”

David Kirby’s father, reflecting on the controversy over twenty years later in 2012, told photographer Therese Frare:

“‘Listen, Therese. Benetton didn’t use us, or exploit us. We used them. Because of them, your photo was seen all over the world, and that’s exactly what David wanted.”

David Kirby’s very-public death was followed by a spree of post-mortem AIDS activism, including a number of AIDS funerals focused on the White House. The ashes of young men lost to the disease were thrown over the White House fence over the years, and even a few dead bodies were brought to the White House gates, including that of Steve Michael, founder of the Washington, DC chapter of ACT UP.

Efforts have also been made to personalize those who died from Covid. The Twitter account “FacesOfCOVID” regularly chronicles those lost to the virus:

National media have done profiles on the dead. While mourning family members have spoken out in angry obituaries:

But even with all that, it still feels like Covid is an ever-present threat that ends up striking others. I worry that the virus will never be fully real for much of the country until it strikes closer to home, and by then it will be too late, if it’s not already.

AIDS hit the gay community particularly hard. Within a few years, we all knew someone who had died, and more who were ill. No one thought of the disease as a hoax. Covid, on the other hand, is an equal-opportunity offender (even if minorities show higher hospitalization rates) that skips from state to state in a never-ending game of viral whack-a-mole. No one community has been decimated enough to be forced to take a stand as in-your-face as ACT UP’s. And until that happens — until we see more images of the dead dying — our only hope is a vaccine that will do nothing for those who die in the meantime.

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