Here we are in April 2021, as COVID surges in its third wave across our province. Ontario community-based HIV/AIDS organizations, their staff, peers and volunteers continue with the profoundly fundamental work of supporting the over-policed working-class, and impoverished Black, Indigenous, homeless, disabled, communities most at risk for HIV, hepatitis C, sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections, fatal opioid overdoses…and COVID-19. Like our partners in healthcare, shelters, and food banks we are exhausted, and deeply concerned by the widening inequality we observe as we do our work. We are being asked to continue administering care while we are personally, and institutionally, pouring from an empty cup. We are being asked to administer what we are not adequately resourced to give to the communities we are mandated to serve.

This weekend, the façade was removed from the police state, while no new resources were given to the organizations providing care to the communities most at risk for COVID-19. Police were given more tools in the form of emergency measures to intensify their harassment and surveillance of homeless individuals, Black, Indigenous, and other non-white racialized people, people with disabilities, and queer communities least able to limit their interactions with police. As HIV/AIDS community-based organizations we continue providing care, while generating employment letters for our staff, in the form of institutional pass cards hopefully permitting safe travel for work, perhaps between the metaphorical reserve and town, or between plantations.

These travel letters may provide our staff cover after they suffer the indignity and danger of being questioned by police, after being labelled as suspicious for attempting to reduce the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have few solid protections we can extend to the communities we walk with; our service users. They will continue to experience disproportionate harm from inadequate health equity measures, income supports, housing protections, food insecurity systems and policing. Ill health and fatalities from COVID-19 will be exacerbated, particularly for Indigenous, Black and impoverished white communities targeted by multiple forms of police violence in the form of carding, surveillance, or punitive systems offered in place of further supports. Despite being essential, our work, our staff – are still not acknowledged as essential. The life-sustaining actions we have undertaken this year are not resourced as being essential.

In this moment it can be overwhelming to think of ways forward, unless we think historically, and analytically, and see the real connections between HIV and COVID-19. If we use an intersectional lens, if we acknowledge policies further entrenching anti-Black racism, colonialism, and our current economic and social arrangements as being the true drivers of the devastating harm these viruses and associated conditions have in our communities, we can see solutions in the interventions we have employed in the past. We will see the desolation in this moment as not being about the qualities of each virus, their transmission, or even about characteristics of the groups most devastated by these viruses. The greater similarities are in the evidence-based interventions that have provided us with the most resources in the past, and the actions that have created reprieve for the communities to which we belong, and are mandated to support. 

It is important to remember that our HIV/AIDS community-based sector has perhaps had its greatest impact in the intervention or ongoing work of organizing. Much of what currently exists for the communities we serve was manifested through organizing for services, for free and accessible medications, for health equity in the form of healthcare access, and for income supports for those living with HIV. Those who may argue that research resulted in life-saving medications, a fundamental life-saving intervention, will need to be reminded that resources for research were also a result of organizing from a place of peer expertise, led by people living with HIV and people with shared identities and experiences of oppression from the communities most impacted by HIV.

Much like HIV, and our under-resourced opioid overdose response, COVID-19 will be left to our sector and allied organizations to address once it is no longer a concern for vaccinated mainstream populations. Our organizing for rights and liberation against oppressions must once again become central to our work if we are to ever eliminate stigma and health disparities for those living with HIV, those at risk for fatal overdose due to our poisoned drug supply, and those who are placed most at risk for violence, disability and death by a carceral response in the form of a police state. This expansion of punitive systems is offered as a substitute for broader human rights and expanded protections through resourced systems of care, including health, social, community service supports, and adequate income and income supports to care for one’s self with dignity. 

To be effective, we will need to organize our coalitions more broadly, this time thinking of which individuals within our communities are most marginalized by intersecting forms of oppression. Our expertise in supporting the communities least able to access HIV care and supports, those most in need of housing and food security supports, and those least supported to avoid COVID-19 infection, protect themselves from police interaction, and access COVID-19 vaccination can be envisioned as an expanding circle. It is a protective circle, rooted in principles of mutual aid. 

Our past HIV/AIDS activism, mutual aid efforts and organizing must be informed and invigorated through new movements. For the past few years, we have been learning and taking small steps within our Ontario HIV/AIDS community-based sector to learn about addressing ongoing colonialism, supporting Indigenous solidarity and identifying anti-colonial actions we can implement in our HIV/AIDS work. We have started to examine the absence of a Black queer feminist analysis of structural anti-Black racism in our HIV prevention work, and realize that the goal of eliminating HIV stigma for those living with HIV and ending new HIV infections requires an elimination of all structural oppressions, and a hard look at which individuals, identities and experiences are overlooked or erased from our circle of care, as they are likely to be communities that are simultaneously experiencing the violence of multiple oppressions. The demands put forth in organizing and mutual aid, queer liberation, anti-poverty and harm reduction movements, alongside movements for Indigenous solidarity and Black liberation create space and resources for us to both provide better services to the communities we support, while creating opportunities to reduce the growing inequality we observe. Disinvestment from punishment frees up spaces for liberation.