World AIDS Day 2020: How has the Caribbean dealt with HIV during COVID-19?

A red ribbon sits in a woman's hand in support of World AIDS Day. Image by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

In a year that continues to test everyone's resilience, the theme of World AIDS Day, marked annually on December 1, is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility.” Several Caribbean-based nongovernmental organisations and youth groups are lending their voices to the cause of eradicating the disease and marking the occasion in various ways.

On November 22, just ahead of World AIDS Day, the Jamaican Network of Seropositives, which advocates for the rights of those living with HIV and AIDS, hosted a virtual church service to honour those who have been affected. Like many other Caribbean societies, Jamaica is deeply religious, so it was an interesting approach to use prayer as a vehicle for unity in a country where religion is often used to ostracise LGBTQ+ and HIV+ people.

Barbados’ Ministry of Health and Wellness, meanwhile, noted that a multisectoral response to HIV/AIDS has become even more critical amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Threatened livelihoods, disruption in supply chains, changes in health care delivery which affected access to health care are but some of the challenges that people living with HIV […] face in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Although the Caribbean has made great strides in reducing AIDS-related deaths (from 11,000 in 2010 to 6,900 in 2019) and new HIV cases (from about 18,000 to 13,000 annually), disease management is still a key public health issue in a region where sex education is typically omitted from the school curriculum, and where social stigma around the disease still persists.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has advocated for self-testing kits to be made readily available throughout the Caribbean:

The United States Embassy in Barbados focused on some of the progress being made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, including the establishment of the Best Dos Santos Laboratory, which helps high-risk people access HIV tests early so that they can immediately undergo life-saving treatment.

Dr. Rosmond Adams, the director of the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP), noted that regional restrictions being imposed as a result of COVID-19 have had an impact on the ability to deliver HIV-related services, including educational and prevention measures, treatment and laboratory tests.

However, several countries have taken stop-gap measures. Belize has put its wider social worker network to good use by using civil society organisations to carry out a needs assessment of people living with HIV. Jamaica has accessed grants that help with nutritional and financial support. Barbados, in addition to offering virtual medical consultations, has arranged for the delivery of food and medication to patients.

The Facebook group Queer Caribbean History didn't miss the significance of the fact that this year's World AIDS Day was being marked in the middle of a pandemic:

[…] we remember the origins of this pandemic during the silent epidemic years, and how in spite of the impact on our region, we remain resilient.

Youth Ambassadors TT added:

COVID-19 is showing once again how health is interlinked with other critical issues, such as reducing inequality, human rights, gender equality, social protection, and economic growth.

As part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals agenda, the Caribbean hopes to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030.

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