George Woyames: Viral Fear

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The public response to the coronavirus has George Woyames remembering the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when fear was contagious. Here’s his Perspective.

When my first friend with AIDS died in San Francisco in 1987, two older male funeral home employees, one Asian, the other white, came early in the morning to remove his body. They appeared terrified of touching him. Drawing on gloves, they lifted him by hands and feet, totally naked, like a discarded carcass, and prepared to carry him down the steps of his home in the Upper Castro. Appalled, I stopped them, got a white sheet from his house, wrapped his body and carried him down to their van.

Sadly, it seems that fear of the coronavirus is restarting the same rumor mills endured by people with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. I have seen individuals refusing to sit next to elderly Asians wearing protective masks on public transportation, avoiding any contact with the homeless whom they think are unable to wash their hands properly and — if you are Catholic as I am — not shaking hands in church at the passing of peace. They dodge the wine cup during Holy Communion and tell others to do the same. No one seems to think that those masked seniors may be doing us all a favor by protecting us from a cold, or that the homeless-seeming person on the same Muni bus may already have a bottle of hand sanitizer in his or her pocket.

It took a while for correct information about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention to sink in, thanks partly to the work of the press. Today, numerous reports on effective measures detailed by public health officials emphasize washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, covering mouths when coughing or sneezing and staying home when ill.

I hope others won’t have to endure my experience, carrying my friend’s body to a waiting funeral van because of misinformation and stereotypes. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping a bottle of hand disinfectant on me, and buying an extra bottle for somebody else.


San Francisco is a healing city. Let’s hope it stays that way.

With a Perspective, I’m George Woyames.

George Woyames is a retired medical social worker. He lives in San Francisco.