It’s always heartwarming to watch communities rally together when they have a common health concern. In the early days, the gay HIV community was a great example of how people were able to join forces in the face of a terrible stigma and even death to ensure strong networks were able to provide support. It is a model that has been emulated in the breast cancer community, MS, liver and heart disease and many others.
I was reminded of this recently at the Gathering for people living with HIV across the province, organized by Positive Living Society of BC. People were relieved to be connected with others... they could chat informally without fearing stigma and there was clearly a sense of camaraderie and common purpose.
Recently, I was thinking of our family vacations to Eyam, Derbyshire where my grandmother used to live. It’s a beautiful, historic village in the Pennine hills, full of old stone houses and even a hotel on the English haunted inns list, The Miner’s Arms.
Hundreds of years before my grandmother lived there, Eyam had faced terrible stigma and death too. In August 1665, some cloth was delivered from London to a local tailor. He hung the damp cloth to dry and it released fleas that were hidden in the material - they were carrying the bubonic plague. Within one week, the tailor was dead and many in the little village were dying.
Unlike HIV, the bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium and was passed very rapidly by the bite of fleas.. The village decided to isolate itself from surrounding villages and from each other. The church services were held in a field and a well above the village was used for money to be dropped in the water by the villagers and, in turn, the nearby villages delivered food. The Riley Graves on another hill lay testament to a mother who buried her husband and six children within 8 days - a sad and horrific tragedy.
However, for some reason when the village finally opened its self-imposed quarantine, a quarter of the villagers had survived and there is a belief that it was for the same reason that some people seem to have a gene which gives them immunity to HIV (the gene has been found in the descendents of Eyam’s survivors).
The community spirit of that tiny village and their determination to overcome the odds and their own personal fear reminds me very much of the great courage of people with HIV. Many HIV+ people have not only had to combat the ignorance of others but also decide as a community what steps they will take to network together and fight the disease.
This all leads me to believe when we are sick with a mutual illness, we find a bond and a new reality emerges. In death, humans reveal powers of endurance and their resilience is at its best. Alliances are struck and there’s a real sense of connection. At a time of mutual isolation, there is kinship, respect and love.