HIV Aids

Desserts and Running a Nonprofit Help This Activist Cope With COVID-19 Quarantine


Obviously, our current COVID-19 crisis brings up a lot of anxiety, even PTSD, for folks living with HIV/AIDS, especially longtime survivors. All the talk of who’s spreading it and how, the daily nationwide sickness and death toll, the dread that oneself or loved ones will suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the frequent examples of government incompetence and apathy amid a crisis—let’s face it, it’s all a little too reminiscent of a certain epidemic many of us remember too well from the 1980s and 1990s.

But the flip side of all that devastation and grief is resilience and grace, and that’s what so many folks living with HIV/AIDS—nationwide and globally—are exhibiting as we hunker down through this pandemic of indefinite length and scope. TheBody spent the past few days talking to 10 people living with HIV nationwide to find out how they’re affected and why they’re scared—but also how they’re coping, adapting, and staying connected in these challenging (and isolating) times. Send your own COVID-19 stories to timmurphynycwriter@gmail.com. We want to stay on top of how the community is faring.

Today, we check in with Los Angeles nonprofit head Tony Valenzuela, who’s staying cool amid the panic through walks with his dog, foreign-language TV shows—and, OK, more dessert than usual. He says he’s a loner anyway, so the isolation doesn’t bother him. And he’s not nervous—except a bit, for his elderly parents in Mexico.

Tony Valenzuela, executive director, Foundation for the AIDS Monument, 51

Los Angeles, CA

Diagnosed with HIV in 1995

Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?

Tony Valenzuela: Personally, my husband Rob and I are fine and healthy. I’m a little surprised at how quickly I’ve adapted to this new normal and wondered why this might be. Because I went through the AIDS crisis? Because I’m older and have experienced multiple world traumatic events? Is it my nature to adapt quickly? Are we too early in the pandemic for me to feel truly impacted? I’m trying to figure out my calm disposition in all this.

I’m the executive director of the Foundation for the AIDS Monument in LA. In my job, like everyone else in nonprofits, we’ve canceled fundraisers, programs, and created contingency budgets to get through the next three to nine months. All our meetings are on Zoom. I’m lucky to be working and that my organization has reserves. Things could be much worse.

TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?

TV: I’ve always been an introvert. Except for work and recreational sex, social distancing is my normal state of being. It hasn’t been a difficult adjustment for me. But I do stay connected with my husband, obviously, and my dogs. I’m still communicating a lot with folks through work and activism and I speak with my family regularly.

TM: How are you getting exercise?

TV: I go on daily walks, sometimes with dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with Rob. I respect social distancing rules on my walks.

TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?

TV: Every kind of food, especially dessert. I figure, I’m not going to be in public for a month or more. I can pack on a few.

TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?

TV: I just read Better Bylaws: Creating Effective Rules for Your Nonprofit Board. It was riveting. I also love foreign TV shows, anything with subtitles, especially stuff from Mexico, Scandinavia, Germany, and Spain.

TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?

TV: I’m not scared. I’d say a two. It’s not in my nature to freak out about things. I’m irritatingly calm. That said, I’m concerned about my dad, who is 85, and my mom, who is going on 79. They live in Mexico, where the social distancing recommendations only just started.

TM: What is giving you hope and strength?

TV: My husband, dogs, family, community, neighbors. Folks really are in this together.

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