Magic Johnson compares HIV and coronavirus pandemic misconceptions and impact on black community

Back when he shocked the world and announced he was diagnosed with HIV, perhaps only Magic Johnson truly believed he would still be alive. Johnson has been proven correct for just over 29 years and counting.

"The reason I’m still living is early detection," Johnson said Thursday on CNN. "I had a test and I had a physical. It came up that I had HIV, and that saved my life."

Johnson did not appear on CNN just to reflect on the moment he announced on Nov. 7, 1991 that he would retire from the Los Angeles Lakers after learning he contracted the HIV virus that causes AIDS. He also appeared to discuss the novel coronavirus pandemic.

First, Johnson offered some context: "When I think about this virus, it is completely different."

Nonetheless, Johnson still drew parallels between HIV and COVID-19 because of the similarities regarding the misconceptions about the respective viruses, inadequate testing, lack of available drugs and how the pandemic has hurt the black community.

"African-Americans are leading in terms of dying from the coronavirus and most of them in the hospital are African-American,” Johnson said. "We have to do a better job as African-Americans to follow social distancing, stay at home and make sure we educate our loved ones and our family members and do what we’re supposed to do to keep safe and healthy. Then when you add that up, we don’t have access to health care, quality health care. So many of us are uninsured. That also creates a problem, too. Just like it did with HIV and AIDS."

Consider the common perception about HIV when Johnson learned he first had it.

"When I announced, it was considered a white, gay man’s disease," Johnson said. "People were wrong. Black people didn’t think they could get HIV and AIDS."

That partly explains why Johnson went public with his diagnosis. It also partly explains why Johnson eventually raised more than $10 million for HIV/AIDs research and charities through his foundation.

Nonetheless, the Center for Disease Control estimated that in 2018, black people accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses. USA TODAY recently reported that black people are dying of coronavirus at much higher rates compared with other Americans in major cities. Johnson offered varying reasons that explain such a troubling trend.

Johnson decried the country’s lack of testing supplies, and the varying logistical and financial hurdles it takes to receive one.

"We got to make sure first every American can get tested. Right now there’s a shortage of tests. People want to get tested, but they can’t find a test kit," Johnson said. "The problem is people want us to drive to suburban America to get that test. Why can’t you have that testing done right in urban America and right in the inner cities?"

Johnson lamented the country’s current health care system. He observed that black people are susceptible to more underlying health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Those conditions can make people more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

"The lack of access to health care, that is an unbeatable combination," Johnson said. "We need to get better. Hopefully there will be affordable health care for all people, not just for minorities but everybody. If the prices come down, then I think you’re going to see African-Americans be a lot healthier."

Lastly, Johnson pointed out that black people are more likely to be working in jobs considered "essential services" than those that allow them to work from home. That partly explains why Johnson has made investments on projects that focus on rebuilding inner cities, and has raised funds to award college scholarships.

"We’re hard-working people," Johnson said. "We want to take care of our family. But at the same time, we have to understand that the hospitality sector and restaurant sector are driven a lot by minorities, especially African-Americans. We can’t just say it’s because they are in those sectors. We as African-Americans have to do a better job. We have to make sure our kids can educate themselves so they can have jobs in other sectors. So we won’t be talking about this hopefully in the next five years."

That largely depends on if doctors can find a vaccine for COVID-19.

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