The fight against COVID-19 should not mean forgetting the 37 million people living with HIV

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Afsar Syed Mohammad, Senior Technical Specialist, Gender Equality, Diversity and ILOAIDS

COVID-19. Quarantine. Lock down. Shortages of medicines. How is this affecting the more than 37 million people living with HIV globally?

What I have heard from those I spoke to in Africa and Asia is alarming; people living with HIV are not just being left behind, they are being pushed further back. The disruption to antiretroviral treatment (ART), the loss of jobs, the lack of access to unemployment benefits and health insurance are very real fears for those living with HIV during this pandemic.

Although the main global objective remains the fight against COVID-19, we cannot forget the AIDS epidemic that the world has been fighting for more than 30 years. It is important to address both problems at the same time.

This approach will ensure that the gains made in fighting AIDS are not lost, and help us address the issues being faced by people living with HIV in this health emergency. Will people living with HIV continue to receive their ART? If people living with HIV show up with COVID-19 symptoms in a health care setting, will they get the same treatment as others? Will people living with HIV who lose their jobs and livelihoods due to COVID-19 be taken care of? Will they be able to resume their work when the situation normalizes and have access to adequate social protection?

These questions must be addressed and answers found, in consultation with people living with HIV. In addition, with the goal of zero discrimination against people living with HIV still to be reached, COVID-19 should not be allowed, or used as an excuse, to exacerbate stigma and discrimination. The pledge of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind, built around the principle of protecting the human rights of all, must not be forgotten during this pandemic.

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Protect the jobs of people living with HIV

The latest ILO Monitor on COVID-19 and the world of work shows that COVID-19 is already affecting millions of informal economy workers who lack the basic protection that formal jobs usually provide, including social protection coverage. For people with HIV the situation is much worse. Even before the pandemic, data from the UNAIDS GAP Report showed they are three times more likely to be out of work.

When I spoke to Daxa Patel, President of the National Coalition of People Living with HIV in India, she told me that they were really concerned about losing jobs and incomes and that the closing of international markets and the absence of buyers is forcing companies to reduce production. According to Patel, people living with HIV who are in the informal economy or are daily-wage earners are the hardest hit.

It is time to re-examine existing national employment and social protection schemes so that measures to address the economic survival and wellbeing of people living with HIV are included.

Keep implementing HIV and AIDS workplace laws, policies and commitments

A large number of HIV workplace policies and commitments – at national, sectoral and enterprise levels – have been developed already. They commit to ensuring non-discrimination and continuity of employment. They also provide guidance on the role of workplaces in enhancing access to HIV testing, prevention, treatment, care and support services.

These policies must not be interrupted because of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, the pandemic increases the need to speed up the implementation of these policies. The joint communique of employers’ and workers’ organizations in Uganda on COVID-19 and the world of work sets a good example.

This health emergency cannot be used as an excuse to forget those in vulnerable situations. HIV prevention, testing and treatment services should not slow down. We must continue to implement measures against stigma and discrimination (measures that took decades to develop) so that no one, especially people living with HIV, is left behind during this crisis.

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