Gert McMullin sewing masks (photo by Mike Smith, courtesy Bay Area Community Services)

Gert McMullin has never been one to idle in times of crisis. When the HIV and AIDS pandemic first overtook the Bay Area, she and a group of other volunteers rose to the occasion by developing the largest community folk art project in the world — the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. After learning about a friend’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, McMullin once again sprang into action. With memories of hospital wards desperate for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the 1980s, she realized how she could use her skills to aid essential workers and at-risk communities.

Since early March, McMullin has led a DIY mask-making operation for hospitals, congregant living facilities, and LGBTQ recovery homes in San Francisco and Oakland. She and about a dozen other Quilt volunteers sew masks while sheltering in place — some with lips and mustaches, others with colorful patterns — then they gather the finished products and deliver them. Each mask is sewn with an inseam designed to hold an N95 or surgical mask so that medical workers can easily switch out disposables and wash them between shifts. Having recently acquired the Quilt, the National AIDS Memorial (NAM) viewed this kind of mutual aid as a logical response to the recent pandemic and agreed to help with funding. 

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in front of the Washington Memorial (courtesy National Institutes of Health/Wikimedia Commons)

“Both the Quilt and the masks have been created in the middle of what is being memorialized,” said John Cunningham, Executive Director of NAM. “Most memorials are created after all is said and done, but we know that these crises are actually ongoing.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a vast, colorful patchwork of more than 50,000 three-by-six-foot panels dedicated to individuals who have died from HIV and AIDS-related illnesses since the 1980s. McMullin has worked on every panel to date, either by creating her own memorials to deceased friends or by helping with others. Now, she has a hand in each mask by either sewing them herself or delivering them by the thousands to hospitals like St. Mary’s and University of California San Francisco. All masks are cut from the same cloth that goes into the Quilt, donated either individually or by local upholstery shops. 

Quilt founders Mike Smith, Gert McMullin, and Cleve Jones with National AIDS Memorial Executive Director John Cunningham (photo by Mike Smith, courtesy Bay Area Community Services)

“We started the NAMES Project because it wasn’t about the number of deaths, it was about specific names,” McMullin said. “That one person matters, and this is how much they were loved. I know what that fabric has done in the past, and I’m hoping that kind of love will come through in this, too.”

Scientific and medical responses to coronavirus have been compared to the panic of the mid-1980s, when researchers scrambled to comprehend and slow down its spread as hospital workers treated an influx of severe cases. Many AIDS patients suffered alone, not only because their families and communities had often turned their backs on them, but also because their chosen families — partners, lovers, and friends — were not recognized by medical administrations and therefore barred from entering hospital rooms. They were dying in isolation, with nurses as their only human contact, a reality that continues with COVID-19 patients.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC (Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Much like back then, the US government underestimated the spread of the virus, and PPE dwindled as a result of austerity-related medical spending cuts. President Ronald Reagan’s administration even cracked homophobic jokes about AIDS during its initial outbreak, just as many prominent officials failed to take COVID-19 seriously. Reagan made a social decision to neglect homosexuals, sex workers, and drug users by leaving them to their own devices. This time around, Trump contributes to rising Sinophobia while ignoring the BIPOC communities that this virus has disproportionately devastated, with millions of low-income Americans left in the lurch due to government neglect. 

“Back then, I said that if there were straight people involved then the government would do something about it,” McMullin told Hyperallergic. “I was wrong. They still aren’t doing anything about this.”

Michael Bongiorni (AIDS Memorial Quilt) and Renee Tripp (BACS) (photo by Mike Smith, courtesy Bay Area Community Services)

Along with help from NAMES Project co-founder Mike Smith, McMullin expanded her mask deliveries to rehabilitation centers and food banks for the homeless. These facilities have faced their own PPE shortages, but they seldom receive as much equipment as hospitals and nursing homes do. Local health networks like Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which provides social services as an alternative to institutional care, needed their own equipment for their ongoing programs and housing initiatives. 

“BACS has a lot of environments where workers are in close quarters and sheltering in place is not really an option,” explained Smith. “They were frantic and looking all over for enough masks, not only for the staff living in their facilities but for clients.”

Despite shelter-in-place orders by Governor Gavin Newsom, Alameda County and the State of California deemed BACS an essential service. Many low-income or housing-insecure clients are unable to access proper telehealth options, meaning that non-residential workers are still in and out of buildings maintaining daily contact with them. When McMullin heard that BACS was in dire need of PPE, she delivered 1,300 masks. 

For McMullin, Cunningham, and Smith, the outbreak of HIV and AIDS was the first conceivable experience with their own mortality on such a grand scale. They emphasize that for many young Americans, primarily Generation Z, this pandemic is their first experience not only with mass death but with the natural human tendency toward mutual aid.

“This has been an opportunity to pull the thread from one tragic pandemic to another, and to share how people can show up for others,” Cunningham said. “It fits squarely in not only who we are as community organizers but also as people who channel incredible pain and despair into something hopeful.”

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.