The Covid Pietà

Americans are not “hardened” on coronavirus deaths. For most of us, the deaths weren’t real at all. Sure, if you lived in New York City you probably knew people who got seriously ill or worse. Even so, even many New Yorkers returned as usual after the perceived threat subsided. But what about the rest of us?

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I knew a woman who died early, a friend of a friend in NYC whom I had met a couple of times over dinner. Nothing near home except her until my cousin’s husband nearly died of Covid last week in Oklahoma. Also a week ago, my sister in Chicago told me that her Covid high school friend was at the door of death and was not expected to recover. After nearly nine months of this virus, it only becomes real for many Americans.

But that’s not the only reason America’s 285,000+ coronavirus deaths are not a burden on the American mind. Due to the nature of this virus, the deaths it causes are not visible. Even family members are often absent when loved ones die. But America was given a rarer look at the number of people last month when Dr. Joseph Varon shared a photo of an elderly Covid patient whom he comforted like a modern pietà.

For those familiar with the early years of the AIDS crisis, the picture of Dr. Varon immediately to Therese Frare’s haunting and groundbreaking photo of David Kirby, who was mourned on his deathbed by his grieving family in 1990. Frares photo is credited to humanizing AIDS for nearly a billion people worldwide.

“There’s no question that photos improve people’s ability to be compassionate,” said Alan Klein, an early member of ACT UP / NY who is now a communications and technology advisor. “It brings it into your living room for you to relate to.”

The Italian clothing company Benetton used the photo with the permission of the Kirby family in 1992 in a controversial advertising campaign that was outraged by many AIDS activists, but which I find brilliant, at least in retrospect. Oliviero Toscani, former Creative Director of the Benetton Group, explains:

“I don’t think AIDS activists have been more active than I am, that’s the point…. I had a big company that invested money in promoting AIDS to the world. Tell your client to do this, my dear advertising friend. Tell your client to do this to invest in a problem that we should solve. “

David Kirby’s father, who pondered the controversy over twenty years later in 2012, told photographer Therese Frare:

‘Listen, Therese. Benetton didn’t use or take advantage of us. We used it. Because of them, your photo was seen all over the world, and that’s exactly what David wanted. “

David Kirby’s very public death was followed by a riot of post-mortem AIDS activism, including a series of AIDS funerals centered around the White House. The ashes of young men lost to the disease have been thrown over the White House fence over the years, and even some bodies have been brought to the White House gates, including that of Steve Michael, the founder of the Chapter of ACT UP in Washington, DC….

To read the rest of this story, please check out my new Substack newsletter CyberDisobedience. Thanks.

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