On epidemics and memory and history

My World AIDS Day post at A Bit More Detail was concerned with the ability of HIV/AIDS to annihilate entire communities, and their histories and even the very memory of their existence.

This isn’t entirely unexpected, since unlike other epidemic/pandemic diseases HIV infections are almost always transmitted in fairly discrete sexual/social networks, perhaps rapidly transmitted through these networks owing to the ability of concurrent sexual relationships to quickly transmit HIV from one newly infected person aat peak infectiousness to another, perhaps not. Meanwhile, as a slow-acting lentivirus with a space of a few years between infection and the onset of disease, HIV is well-positioned to permeate a set of networks long before anyone recognized that it’s there. That’s what happened, actually: AIDS was first detected in the developed world because of its highly-concentrated presence in a handful of small and highly visible demographics in the North Atlantic world: queer men, IV drug users, and hemophiliacs and other blood product recipients on both sides of the Atlantic, and Haitians (and people with Haitian contacts) in North America and Central Africans (and people with Central African contacts) in western Europe.

The result? Communities were wrecked, some few even destroyed, and the knowledge of their existence diminished. Speaking about queer communities, some did better than others: Toronto’s queer community, for instance, enjoyed lower infection rates than San Francisco’s and seems to have been more tight-knit, while in San Francisco the Castro neighbourhood recovered much more fully than the adjacent and somewhat downscale Haight-Ashbury district. Even with horrifyingly high rates of infection and death in some circles of friends, there were very often survivors, whether long-term infected survivors or the uninfected, people who could pass on fragments. Too, there were frequently also external documentation–media reports, property records, and the like–that could reconstruct the skeleton of what had been lost. The flesh, though, the many complex lived experiences of so many people in a community, and the people themselves, was irretrievable.

This post is a bit of a ramble, I see, and I suppose it’s addressed specifically (but not only) to the historians and bibliophiles reading this blog. Have you encountered communities that have been left almost entirely mute by one catastrophe or another, or simply by a lack of recording media? If you’ve tried to reconstruct such a community, particularly the lived experiences of the community, how have you done it? Or can it be done?

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