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Maggie Lee

COVID complicates HIV fight

AIDS Memorial Quilt on display in Piedmont Park, Oct. 13, 2018. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan AIDS Memorial Quilt on display in Piedmont Park, Oct. 13, 2018. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

COVID-19 is adding another layer of struggle for people who are living with HIV or AIDS and who are fighting the decades-old epidemic. Policy changes and some lessons from COVID would help get the older epidemic under control.

“I’ve always experienced burnout from just living with HIV and taking medicine and going to doctors, but I wanted to be extra cautious during this time,” said Antoinette Jones, who’s never known life without an infection that weakens her immune system. She was born with HIV.

She’s getting her meds at least three months in advance, seeing her doctor virtually, staying in touch with her health care providers and asking as many questions as possible — taking extra steps to take care of herself.

But Jones herself is also a service provider, she explained at an AIDS Day panel last week hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and the National Center for Civil and Human rights.

She’s a peer counselor at Atlanta’s Sister Love, a woman-centered nonprofit that works to eradicate the adverse impact of HIV and AIDS. Their many services include HIV testing and help accessing HIV treatment.

“We had to close our doors temporarily as we figured out how this COVID pandemic could possibly affect not just us as staff, but our clients as well,” Jones said.

Sister Love isn’t alone. COVID-19 is pinching all kinds of organizations working on the fight against HIV and AIDS.

“So before, where you would see 13 patients a day at a U.S. clinic … now you’re only seeing four or five because you’re spacing them apart,” said John Hassell, national director of advocacy at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a global nonprofit that provides medicine and advocacy for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Yet all those providers still need to pay staff and keep the lights on. All over the world, in fact.

Hassell said there’s a requirement for extra money for both PEPFAR, the U.S. government’s main fund for combating HIV and AIDS globally as well as the Ryan White program, the U.S. domestic program that provides care and support services to low-income people who have HIV.

“But I don’t see the demonstrators for that right now, ” Hassell said. “And it’s really kind of disappointing.”

Yet Dr. Hank Tomlinson, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s director of the division of global HIV and TB, said market forces are not likely to come together for HIV in the way that they did for COVID-19 vaccines.

Because the vast majority of global HIV burden isn’t located in high-income global northern countries that can afford it.

But he said he’s seeing two encouraging things out of the COVID-19 fight.

“This does show what is possible, when the global … scientific and academic and pharmaceutical efforts align, and how quickly something can be done and progress can be made,” Tomlinson said.

He also said that the world has the resources and tools to control global and local HIV epidemics right now.  And what he’s seeing with COVID is conversation that properly locates responsibility in systems and structures, not in individual people and their risk behaviors.

“It’s in dealing with those things, should we choose to, should we turn our attention to, that will allow us to utilize those tools that are already in the toolbox, that can get us there,” Tomlinson said.

Zoom in to the metro Atlanta level and you find prominent institutional failures already when it comes to spending the money that is already there.

There’s Fulton County’s mismanagement of HIV prevention funds that came to light in 2015 and Atlanta’s mismanagement of money more recently meant to help house people who have HIV or AIDS.

There are institutional failures, said Charles Stephens, founder and executive director of The Counter Narrative Project, an Atlanta nonprofit that works to build power among Black gay men and allies for social and racial justice.

There are also barriers between people and HIV care: lack of cultural competence among health care providers, economic barriers, even transportation barriers.

But he also said that even as Atlanta struggles to provide services, the community is in the vanguard in another way.

“That is: absolutely framing HIV as a social justice issue,” Stephens said. “Very often, unfortunately, many narratives around HIV sensor only on how individuals are impacted. And certainly that’s important to consider. But one must also look at such things as institutional failures, one must look at such things as failures in ensuring that marginalized people have access to health care.”

Activists have been able to move the needle in Atlanta, he said, and create advances in treatment, prevention and advocacy for folks living with HIV and impacted by HIV.

He also said Atlanta media have told accurate stories about HIV that don’t reproduce stigma and does talk about how people are impacted. And it’s important that those stories get out.

“Far too often narratives, public narratives can be weaponized against vulnerable people,” Stephens said.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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