As the coronavirus pandemic continues to send the global economy and daily life into turmoil, it’s understandable that we’re all grasping for a comparison to make sense of the devastation.
Unfortunately, the comparisons that keep coming up online are to Sept. 11, 2001 and the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Those closest to the tragedies of the past say it’s a mistake to equate them to our current reality.
“People ask me if our lives today feel like the early years of HIV/AIDS, and I want to scream,” writes Mark S. King, an activist and blogger who tested positive for HIV in 1985. “There is no comparison. Just stop.”
“This isn’t like 9/11. This is like World War II. It is going to change the way we live as Americans,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said Tuesday of the current pandemic.
It’s lazy logic that equates those historic crises with the global influence of COVID-19. The three are impossibly different, apart from size of impact and climactic markers for the end of an era.
But survivors say there are unifying lessons to be learned from the lack of similarities. In fact, it’s the differences that can speak to what we should be grateful for, and where we can find shared strength in the current climate of fear and unknowns.
There was no day of horror
“I hear people saying, ‘Oh it’s another 9/11,’ ” Ken Tirado, a New York native, tells The Post. “Because 9/11, especially for New Yorkers, is very personal, and to just suddenly throw it out there, ‘Oh, it’s another day of infamy,’ to make it a cliche — it’s offensive to both cases.”
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Tirado concedes, were also a national crisis with 2,983 lives lost and major economic and societal impacts — including prolonged closure of the New York Stock Exchange and the invention of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — but the parallels end there.
“9/11 was very quick for a lot of people, it was one day of horror and then a couple of months reading about the pit and the funerals and the recovery,” says the 62-year-old who runs Staten Island’s Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn. “But most people were only impacted by that one day. This is more of an unknown, lingering thing — we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s apples and oranges to me.”
Another difference? The anger. During 9/11, many in mourning directed their rage toward the individuals responsible for the attacks. Today, there’s no easy target for those emotions — just a faceless virus that could infect anyone at any time.
Many point optimistically to the way New Yorkers treated one another after the Twin Towers fell. In the face of coronavirus-fueled hate crimes, the hope now is that people will begin to replicate that post-9/11 behavior, in the context of a pandemic where social distancing is necessary — but compassion is still possible. There is a key difference, however, between the response then and what must happen now, says freelance fabricator Dan Glass, 52, who has lived on the Lower East Side since 1991.
“I was on my roof in the East Village on 9/11 and saw the towers fall,” he says. After 9/11, “the inclination was to go help, and gather together with those who needed it,” he says. With the coronavirus, on the other hand, gathering together will only make the situation worse and staying inside is one of the few ways individuals can fight the spread.
“Meeting together, that’s how you support each other — but we have to avoid each other,” Glass says. “It goes against our deepest responses: You want to go help someone, but by helping, you have to stay away.”
It is impossible, with the current physical restrictions, to feel the same sense of togetherness: “Isolation is fundamentally at odds with the notion of community,” Glass says.
The danger is everywhere
For lifelong New Yorker and city historian Joseph Anastasio, 45, the hoarding is the biggest contrast between New Yorkers’ current behavior and how they’ve behaved during past disasters, like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
“In those situations, the need was localized. With the virus, it’s everywhere,” he says. “We all feel in danger, so we’re just hoarding across the board now,” he says, referring to the panic-buying at stores across the country.
He recalls how, in the days after 9/11, Pier 40 became a dedicated supplies drop-off location to store the massive amount of goods — gloves, masks, bottled water — that locals donated to first responders.
While the likeness between the current pandemic and 9/11 is slim, the tension around New York City does remind Anastasio of one particularly dark period in NYC history.
“I have not seen New Yorkers this tense since 1991, when it was the height of the crack wars and the murder rate was super high and there were muggers all over the place, and it was dangerous to be on the subway at night,” he says. “Everyone’s on that same hair trigger tensity, like if you tap them on the shoulder they’re going to explode.”
No need to fight for legitimacy
Another popular online comparison point for the coronavirus has become the early days of AIDS — but survivors say the two couldn’t be more different, as far as pandemics go.
For one, this is far less visible than AIDS, says Edward Rubin, a writer and curator who’s resided in the East Village since 1965.
“You would see people walking around with kaposi sarcoma — those little dots on your face. A lot of them looked like walking zombies, so you saw it,” he says.
In part because of the invisibility of the current crisis, it’s even more horrifying.
He adds that the pandemics further don’t compare because “this affects everyone, and AIDS did not affect everyone.”
He is trying to see a silver lining in the current crisis, though, hopeful that positive policy change, or some other benefit, may eventually come from the disease’s fallout.
Mark S. King, 59, has been shocked by how many people are attempting to draw parallels between the current pandemic and AIDS.
“To draw similarities … is simplistic, it’s revisionist,” he says. “ ’Oh, it’s a mysterious virus and we’re all very afraid,’ — the similarities end there,” King, who currently lives in Baltimore, tells The Post. “I have seen no one being socially outcast because they might have coronavirus,” nor needing to fight for legitimacy.
Early AIDS sufferers, on the other hand, “were in the wilderness. Tens of thousands of people died of AIDS in this country before our government lifted a finger. We had to fight for every scrap of funding and public attention.”
The universality of the coronavirus means it has gotten an immediate response.
“This is tangible to the mainstream in a way that AIDS wasn’t,” he says. “We had preachers on television telling us everyday that this was God’s punishment to us. Now, there is none of that. This new health crisis applies to everyone.
“At least there has been a response, however chaotic, to this. We did not have those advantages. That is why there is no comparison.”
Surviving panic’s chokehold
There is one similarity he acknowledges, and that is widespread panic.
“What is the same is the sense of the unknown, and that brings fear. Are we at the beginning of this? Are we at the halfway mark? No one knows,” King says, but we do know that panic brings out the worst in people. “I think right now people are scrambling out of fear, and there hasn’t been much opportunity yet to display compassion and humanity. Everyone is trying to look out for themselves,” he says.
But he has faith we will rise together to get through this. “As someone who has lived through something that I would consider far worse, what heartens me is the strength of the human spirit and the fact that, even in those dark days [of AIDS], we did help one another, we did have courage. In what was a very scary time, we showed our best selves.”