In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have witnessed a lack of leadership and coordination in response from the White House. As a result, states have been forced to make tough decisions to handle the crisis. Some states are delaying the reopening of their economic activities, and many are issuing mask policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While President Trump and his supporters are downplaying the importance of wearing masks to scale down the spread of COVID-19, big retail shops such as Walmart, Kroger, Meijer, Target, and Kohl’s are leading by requiring all customers to wear masks.
The Trump administration is out of touch with the communities affected by COVID-19. As cases of COVID-19 keep increasing, President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, are insisting that our children will be back in school in person, no matter what.
As everyone is scrambling to figure out what the future holds, pharmaceutical companies are racing to get better medication to treat an outpouring of COVID-19 patients, and scientists are searching for a vaccine. While President Trump refuses to lead the COVID-19 response, states and retail shops are leading on their own. But there is an undeniable missing link in the COVID-19 response: voices from the community that has already helped the world navigate an ongoing epidemic.
Communities affected by HIV and AIDS did not wait for an invitation: They have been active, using their experience and resilience dealing with HIV and AIDS, speaking up, and organizing as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. Though in the United States the HIV medication supply chain has remained stable, in other parts of the world, the COVID-19 crisis has caused many disruptions, making it hard for some communities to access their medications. Lockdowns have deprived people affected by HIV and AIDS of the ability to meet with their health care providers as well as other members of communities affected by HIV and AIDS for support.
The Global Network of People living with HIV (GNP+) released a survey in July seeking to find out how communities affected by HIV are stepping in to fill the gap to ensure that people with HIV have access to essential services. From India to Kenya, HIV-affected communities have taken the lead. They have used bicycles to deliver antiretroviral therapy, sexual and reproductive health products, food packages, and masks to those who need them. In East Africa, communities affected by HIV and AIDS have been raising awareness of the need to increase access to sexual and reproductive health information, services, and products as essential services.
Others around the world are using their online platforms to dismantle COVID-19–related fake news and conspiracy theories. In a press release, GNP+ members urged UNAIDS board members to recognize communities affected by HIV and AIDS as leaders and to meaningfully engage them in the COVID-19 response.
So, despite all this boots-on-the-ground work, why do politicians and leaders ignore these voices in response to the pandemic?
The Resilience of Those in the Fight
People living with and fighting against HIV have been around for over 40 years and have built a robust movement. In 1983, the pioneers of the AIDS movement demanded to be treated as human beings. They led the way and created a vision known as the Denver Principles, a series of statements affirming the rights and humanity of people living with HIV. Though many died along the way without seeing a day when HIV treatment became available, their resilience was transmitted to the movement of communities affected by HIV and AIDS. It is with the spirit of the Denver Principles that communities affected by HIV fought back to make treatment access universal.
Recently, members of communities affected by HIV led by Bruce Richman of Prevention Access Campaign cracked the code. They shared with the world that over the years, research has proved that people living with HIV with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV via sex. This proved that we can end the AIDS epidemic if only we address HIV-related racism, stigma, discrimination, and criminalization; increase HIV testing; and address barriers preventing communities affected by HIV from accessing HIV services.
Bruce Richman crafted a catchy jingle: undetectable equals untransmittable, a.k.a. U=U. Bingo! Again, communities affected by HIV defied the status quo and defined their destiny. From the Denver Principles to U=U, communities affected by HIV and AIDS have proved that they are leaders.
Longevity in Community Mobilization and Organization
Communities affected by HIV are organized, tireless, persistent advocates with a robust infrastructure and established platforms such as national and international campaigns, podcasts, magazines, and established alliances and partnerships with a wide range of actors.
Given all these reasons, communities affected by HIV are well-placed to provide their insights for COVID-19 prevention, vaccine, treatment, care, and human rights protection.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Communities affected by HIV have been around for four decades. They know how to do the work of amplifying community voices. It is critical that the global donors, United Nations agencies, and U.S. administration extend their political support and allocate necessary resources to these communities to respond to COVID-19.