Thursday 29 October, 2020

HIV/AIDS community in JA sees similarities in stigma around COVID-19

Kandasi Levermore, executive director of the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), says she has observed parallels between the stigma once associated with PLHIV (persons living with HIV) and those persons who have newly contracted COVID-19.

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In the early days of HIV, not many people knew much about the disease and people were afraid to get too close, and there is a similar battle being waged to change the calculus of informed knowledge when it comes to the novel coronavirus. 

"HIV is transmitted through sexual activity while COVID-19 is caused by a virus that is far more infectious, but the diseases are similar in that, like HIV, persons who have COVID-19 all of a sudden realise that they face discrimination, and that they have become pariahs or outcasts in communities such as tenement yards, where that sort of discrimination is even more dangerous," Levermore told Loop News.

A nurse, speaking with a Loop News reporter earlier this week confirmed that the discrimination faced by COVID-positive persons was real, and often, persons being sought by health personnel have become afraid.

"The discrimination that is out there, it is real and persons are afraid. When we go into some communities, persons will say, 'Who in here have COVID(-19)? (or) Who unuh come for?' that sort of a thing," said the nurse.

The Government, through a series of advertisements in the media and outlines at various press conferences, has appealed to individuals to desist from discriminating against persons with the virus and their family members.

"Jamaicans must come to realise that stigma only fuels the pandemic, it doesn't stem its spread," Levermore said. 

In the meantime, Levermore revealed that the spreading COVID-19 pandemic is yet to affect any of the PLHIV population in Jamaica. 

"We have had no reports of any of our members being affected by COVID-19," she said. 

The JASL has been very proactive in its approach to protect PLHIV community.  

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we put things in place to make sure that our clients had medication for up to two to three months so that would limit their exposure on the road. We knew what was coming , and before it got to this stage, we wanted to ensure there would be no adverse effect on them," Levermore said. 

"We are working with the science, we know how contagious the virus is, we know the possibility of spread and the measures to reduce the exposure, so we are advising our members to act accordingly, that is limit exposure on the road, and we ensure that they don't have to come out for medication."

JASL deals with a subset of the community of PLHIV in Jamaica. The Ministry of Health deals with the majority.  There is a genuine concern that there could be setbacks in the fight against HIV as public health resources, specifically disease intervention specialists, are shifted to boost the coronavirus response. 

Local health departments are already shuffling staff to respond to COVID-19 and even the JASL has reduced hours or scaled back staff in outreach programmes to adhere to social distancing protocols in the face of the spreading crisis.

"We are coping so far, we have about 820 clients, and we are keeping our treatment programme going. We have continued our care and sanitisation programme, we have ensured that our staff and care team delivers masks to the community. We have tried to get some of them to sign into the government's CARE programme, but some people don't have TRN so it's a challenge," Levermore said. 

There are an estimated 32,000 PLHIV in Jamaica. 

Health experts say that combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia have increased for the fifth straight year up to 2018. HIV and STDs disproportionately affect black men, particularly those who have sex with other men, because of stigma, disparities in access to health care and other societal inequities.

-- Claude Mills 

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