With the rapid spread of COVID-19 across Africa, m2m President & CEO, Frank Beadle de Palomo, looks at how countries and organisations are harnessing lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS response to mitigate the impact of this new pandemic.
Irene Nkosi—one of the nearly 1,800 women living with HIV employed by mothers2mothers (m2m)—saw her world turn upside down in late March when she experienced symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. “I was scared of dying and having two viruses in my body…The fear reminded me of how I felt when I tested HIV-positive 13 years ago,” Irene explains.
Fortunately, Irene soon learned from a doctor that she did not have COVID-19, but word had already spread through her community that she might be infected. She was asked to leave an area in the health facility where she works, and neighbours stopped buying eggs that she sells from her home. Hauntingly, the stigma reminded her of how she was shunned by her family after they learned she was living with HIV.
For Irene and many others in sub-Saharan Africa—which is the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—the prospect of facing another pandemic is overwhelming. The continent’s understaffed and under-resourced health systems are not equipped to handle the current load of HIV/AIDS cases (nearly 26 million people living with the virus and more than one million new infections each year, according to UNAIDS) and growth in non-communicable diseases, let alone another large-scale health crisis. Adding to the concern, COVID-19 poses serious health risks to the region’s nine million people living with HIV who are not on effective treatment, as well as those suffering from other co-morbidities, including tuberculosis, hypertension, and diabetes.
Sadly, vulnerable populations—already disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa—are expected to bear the brunt of COVID-19’s health, economic, and social devastation.
Putting lessons into action
Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. Unlike the early days of HIV/AIDS, many sub-Saharan African nations are showing that they will not stand by waiting as another pandemic spreads across the continent. Countries and organisations, including m2m, are harnessing lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS response to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Chief among them is the importance of community involvement to disseminate accurate health information and promote healthy behaviours to vulnerable and remote populations.
“I make sure my clients understand what COVID-19 is, how they can protect themselves, and what symptoms to look out for. That is critical to preventing stigma and ensuring that everyone can access lifesaving health services,” says Irene.
As testament to the vital role they play in their communities, m2m Mentor Mothers have been designated as “essential workers” in the countries where we operate and where lockdowns are in place—bolstering the capacity of understaffed health centres, so that doctors and nurses can focus on more urgent and acute medical needs. Mentor Mothers are working at health centres every day to provide vital information and support on COVID-19, HIV, and other health issues—a critical first line of defence. They also stay in contact with clients by phone and WhatsApp when it is not safe to meet in person, thanks to a rapid scale-up of our use of technology.
As for Irene, she continues her work at the Dark City Community Health Clinic outside of Pretoria, South Africa, even though it comes with personal sacrifice. “My children are not staying with me until the situation of lockdown is finished and COVID-19 is managed. Every day I come to the clinic, there is a chance I might be infected, so I need to protect them,” she says.
Knowing all too well the devastating impact that a pandemic can have on their communities, Irene and her fellow Mentor Mothers are demonstrating tremendous commitment in making sure women and families—including those who are most vulnerable—are staying healthy and safe in the face of COVID-19. They are true health heroes and, together with the other health workers around the globe working tirelessly on the frontlines, we send our heartfelt gratitude.