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A police officer seen at a checkpoint in Metro Manila, Philippines, April 15, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus: Philippine HIV patients struggle to get life-saving drugs amid lockdown

  • The group, which already experiences social and economic exclusion, is facing challenges seeking treatment as transport systems are cut
  • While community groups are banding together to deliver antiretroviral drugs to HIV patients, some fear using the service could expose their condition

For six years, Leo*, a 29-year old Filipino man, managed to keep the fact that he had been infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) from his family.

But that secret was exposed in the worst possible manner last month, when a traffic officer at a checkpoint in Manila, installed due to the coronavirus lockdown, shouted it out for all the world to hear.
Like 50 million other people in the Philippines, Leo has been affected by the lockdown imposed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the central region of Luzon from March 16 to April 30, to curb the transmission of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But Leo, who got the illness from a partner, needed to go to a treatment facility on March 18, to get his refill of antiretroviral drugs, or ARV. The ARV helps keep the level of HIV low.

[The traffic officer] told my brother to leave me as he may get infected too, because I have HIV.
Leo (not his real name)

He asked his brother to take him to the facility on his motorbike, as all forms of public transport have been suspended.

On their way home, they were stopped at a checkpoint.

“He asked us why I was sitting at the back,” Leo said. Sitting close to another person is prohibited under social distancing measures.

“I told him I had to go with my brother due to medical reasons,” he said. “He asked me what my illness was. I whispered to him that I have HIV.”

What happened next traumatised Leo. “The enforcer started shouting. He told my brother to leave me as he may get infected too, because I have HIV.”

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Leo’s experience encapsulates the challenges faced by those in the LGBTQI community who have HIV – they risk exposure as they also try to find ways to avail of ARV treatment amid the lockdown.
The UN Commission on Aids has warned that by this year, half of new HIV cases in Southeast Asia are projected to be among males having sex with males.
The Thailand-based Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health, which advocates for better health protection measures for LGBTQI people, said that finding was compounded by the fact that this group already faces social exclusion and difficulties in accessing economic opportunities, limiting their means to pay for treatment.
To fill this gap, community organisations in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have adopted a common strategy to deliver ARV.

Richard Bragado, programme head of the People Living With HIV (PLHIV) Response Centre, said one initiative in the Philippines was the #OplanARVayanihan, a wordplay combining ARV and bayanihan, a Filipino tradition of working together.

“The #OplanARVAyanihan is a service of The Red Whistle (TRW) support group in coordination with MapBeks, a community that provides online maps of treatment centres and checkpoint locations. TRW also provides volunteers who can deliver ARV,” he said.

In Sri Lanka, which has a countrywide curfew, details for those who need ARV are gathered via social media and phone calls. PLHIV organisations, with the help of the government, help secure curfew passes, said PalithaVijaya Bandara, programme coordinator of the Positive Hopes Alliance.

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The ARV delivery, however, can be hampered by the lack of transport and the suspension of courier services, as with the case in Pakistan.

“The most common challenge is the lockdown across the country, so all the courier services are no longer working except the National General Post Office service. All the transport facilities have stopped working, so that’s why it’s creating problems to reach the population at this time,” said Muhammad Usman, programme director of the Dareecha Health Society.

One of the Filipinos who tried the ARV delivery services is Mario*, who contracted the virus from his ex-boyfriend.

“They made our life easier and they made the ARV accessible to people living with HIV like me,” he said.

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In Sri Lanka, however, even as ARV deliveries emerge, there are still some who opt not to use the service because they fear their identity will be exposed.

“Some people are not willing to have their treatment delivered to their own house,” Bandara said. “Police ask a lot of questions.”

Leo in Manila is in the same position, hence he’s reluctant to request for the ARV to be delivered to him.

He said he hoped the government would introduce clear protocols for the lockdown to prevent confusion.

“The problem is there are no proper guidelines and protocols, so at least people will know what are the rules to be followed,” Leo said. “Unlike now, where we are publicly humiliated.”

*Names were changed to protect their identity