Remembering HIV activist & Red Ribbon creator Patrick O’Connell: COVID19 “compassion fatigue”

Patrick O’Connell’s obituary in the New York Times is worth a read and taking a long pause afterwards.

First because of these tragic lines: “death, from AIDS-related causes” at 67. How did we ever get used to these words? There is a term for it: “compassion fatigue.”

I first heard it in a conversation with AIDS activist Sean Strub last year. Now that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is under control for “people who matter”, he told me, our compassion for those living with HIV is at its lowest. This in turn fuels HIV criminalization around the world.

The same “fatigue” applies to those of us celebrating the end of COVID19 for the West, while India and Brazil are now in the eye of the storm. Behind the headlines, there is individual suffering, families mourning and irreversible losses which we must continue to acknowledge and respect. By doing so we not only honor our common humanity, we also prevent another mismanaged global pandemic. The constant repetition of history. Tonight, Indian people we know will lay awake worried for relatives in their home country. Let’s reach out to them.

Behaving with grace and empathy requires that we continue to honor our common pain, the lives AIDS claimed and reflect on the frailty of our lives. My friend, the journalist Michael O’Loughlin, reached out to tell me he has been writing a book on LGBTQ+ Catholics engaged in HIV/AIDS ministry or activism in the 80s and 90s. This was heartwarming; Only by being in touch with our community’s history, including its most tragic moments, can we make sense of our present and build a better future.

This is probably why David Mixner, the conscience of our community, whose own life was marked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, is leading a campaign for a memorial for the Americans who died of COVID19 in New Jersey. He knows.

Compassion and empathy are muscles – we must exercise them if we do not want to lose them.

The premature death of Patrick O’Connell is a tragedy in itself. Patrick created the viral red ribbon, a universal symbol of awareness and support for people living with HIV. He symbolizes the combined talent of an entire generation of gay men suddenly swallowed by the virus. Some of these deaths could have been prevented and we won’t forget the prejudice that got in the way of treatment.

So long Patrick, we will never forget you – and if, god forbids, we ever do, you already achieved immortality with Seinfield.