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Leaving No One Behind: Treatment and Care Concerns of People Living with HIV in the Time of COVID-19 - A Philippine Situationer

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COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on various aspects of people’s lives—from the medical, to political, economic, and social. Unfortunately, the negative impact of the pandemic has disproportionately affected the lives of those who are already vulnerable and marginalized pre-COVID-19.

In particular, due to the pandemic, people living with HIV encountered additional barriers in accessing HIV prevention and treatment services. Limited mobility and job loss restricted the capacity of people living with HIV to have continued access to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs and other HIV care services. These problems leave more than 43,000 Filipinos living with HIV who are already on treatment and tens of thousands more Filipinos who are living with HIV but are not diagnosed or not on treatment vulnerable to being lost in or not being linked at all to the HIV care continuum.

To determine the extent of the challenges and provide timely recommendations to the national program on HIV, UNDP and UNAIDS initiated the survey on treatment and care concerns of people living with HIV in the Philippines in the time of COVID-19 from 24 March to 30 September 2020. This report provides an analysis of the 301 responses from Filipinos living with HIV, with emphasis on their treatment and care concerns in the time of COVID-19.

The report reveals that unavailability of public transportation and cost of courier services for ARV delivery are ones of the common barriers encountered by people living with HIV in accessing HIV treatment and care.

This problem is also compounded by other issues such as fear of being discriminated against based on HIV status at checkpoints and not being able to pass through borders. Additionally, some people living with HIV report that the nearest HIV facility from their residence is too far.

The challenge with transportation and delivery is also worsened by the issue with the stock of ARV drugs and other medicines. Some have to go to a farther facility because of unavailability of their treatment in the nearest facility. There are also people living with HIV who reported being given partial refills (one or two bottles, instead of the usual three bottles).

Some people living with HIV report as well that they experience anxiety and depression during this time, with no psychosocial support available. Some respondents are concerned too on how they can financially support themselves and their treatment, given that many of them are either unemployed or only employed part-time.

To address some of these issues, UNDP, UNAIDS, and other development partners worked on several policies and projects aimed at making HIV services more accessible to people living with HIV in the time of COVID-19. Examples include utilization of OHAT package to cover ARV delivery costs during the implementation of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), free ARV refill delivery provided by civil society organizations, information dissemination campaigns, and free telepsychotherapy services to people living with HIV.

The report presents short-term recommendations that will strengthen the country’s HIV response amid COVID-19. The recommendations include: utilization of transportation services of local government units to people living with HIV going to an HIV facility; coordination with law enforcement agencies to ensure that people living with HIV are allowed entry at checkpoints to access HIV services; provision of financial assistance to people living with HIV to cover for costs related to their treatment; and dissemination of infographics and communication materials pertaining to issues and concerns that cut across HIV and COVID-19.

Long-term recommendations—such as development of a more concrete treatment and care plan for people living with HIV during crises and health emergencies—that will help the in development of the national HIV program that is more robust, with or without the threats of COVID-19, are also included in the report.