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One Man Is Using His Experience With The HIV/AIDS Epidemic To Help With COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Unless we learn from HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 will be with communities of color for some time. That's according to Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute. NPR's Reflect America fellow Ashish Valentine reports.

ASHISH VALENTINE, BYLINE: In 1981, Phill Wilson and his partner, Chris Brownlie, were living in Chicago. Brownlie went to the doctor and was told he had swollen lymph nodes.

PHILL WILSON: And his doctor mentioned something about this strange disease that gay men in New York and Los Angeles were getting. And I mentioned that I, too, had swollen lymph nodes, that I had had them for a while.

VALENTINE: Soon, a softball teammate died from the mysterious disease. It would come to be known as AIDS. Wilson and Brownlie moved to Los Angeles and soon were involved with the AIDS hotline. The American public thought of HIV/AIDS as primarily affecting white gay men. That was never accurate.

WILSON: From the earliest days, Black people represented 25% of the new cases in the U.S. Black women represented over 50% of women diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. And it feels like deja vu. You would have thought we would have learned the lessons around race and racial disparities in the AIDS pandemic, and we wouldn't repeat those mistakes in COVID-19.

VALENTINE: Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999 as the nation's first think tank dedicated to mobilizing Black community leaders, media organizations and other institutions to be messengers for science. Dr. Robert Fullilove is a professor of public health at Columbia University working on HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Wilson, he says, was a critical early voice, arguing that infectious diseases needed social solutions, not just biomedical ones. Wilson did this as a Black, gay and HIV-positive man.

WILSON: Bill found a way to break through all of that, and I think that was part of his genius.

VALENTINE: Wilson says the same factors are driving disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infection and death in Black communities and hesitancy around COVID vaccines. Raniyah Copeland took over running the Institute when Wilson retired three years ago. In addition to addressing HIV/AIDS, the center's now partnering with the National Institute of Health to educate Black communities about coronavirus vaccines.

RANIYAH COPELAND: For us, it's about giving people information so they can make decisions for themself. You know, you don't trust the vaccine. Got it. Let's figure out what information you need to make an informed decision.

VALENTINE: The HIV community's argument for eradicating both diseases is that the solutions have to be structural.

WILSON: We need to be building and strengthening institutions and these communities that come from these communities.

COPELAND: And people in HIV have been saying for a very long time universal health care is prevention. And I think that is so true for COVID now, right? If there was universal health care, community members, patients, clients could call their primary care provider and say, OK, is it time for my vaccine? They'd have trusted relationships with them.

WILSON: There's something to be said for decarceration. Prisons and parts of the underdeveloped world represent potential reservoirs where the virus will be able to stay, where it will able to mutate. And as a consequence, we will never be able to eradicate it.

VALENTINE: Wilson turns 65 in a few months. He remembers learning about his status in his late 20s and his doctor telling him to put his affairs in order.

WILSON: The dying would take care of itself. That wasn't my job. My job was to focus on the living, and it's been a gift of a journey that I'm very, very happy about.

VALENTINE: Wilson isn't planning on cashing in his chips anytime soon. There's still work to do.

Ashish Valentine, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MICROPHONES' "INSTRUMENTAL - 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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