Report on impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ HIV services unveiled
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THE Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), last Friday, presented a report which compiles the findings of a qualitative assessment on the HIV services provided to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LBGTQ+) population during the pandemic. The virtual presentation was done by SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson; Human Rights Coordinator, Kobe Smith and research consultant, Alessandra Hereman. The study revealed that LGBTQ+ persons recorded significant challenges in accessing health services in Guyana during the pandemic. There was an urgent need to complement the existing quantitative data with an in-depth exploration on the subject matter in order to have empirical data, and to facilitate the creation of an action plan to engage with the authorities to ensure national HIV services remain on track during the pandemic. This prompted this latest report.

The study was conducted in the four most populous regions in Guyana: Regions Three, Four, Five and Six, with the key populations being gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people, all with an HIV prevalence of five per cent and over. Twelve persons were interviewed; seven transgender women and five MSM between the ages of 20 and 53. During recruitment for the assessment, seven persons were ineligible because they did not access HIV services during the pandemic. Almost half of the participants did not attempt to access general medical services since the start of the pandemic. However, for those who did, they complained of access to transportation being an issue. Some also reported that the process was “rushed” as they said it entailed just the picking up medication and leaving.

One participant stated that they had no issues and felt fine with the new protocols for wearing masks, sanitising and submitting oneself to temperature checks. “All the persons living with HIV were able to access treatment services during the pandemic, while others went for testing and collecting of condoms and lubricants mainly through civil society organisations,” the assessment report highlighted. There were many good experiences relayed, such as travel allowances in Region Six and the friendliness of healthcare professionals. Having services still open, being able to uplift medication, social workers consistently following up and sometimes offering assistance unrelated to HIV, and the smooth testing process were also noted in the report.

The key population expressed frustration, worry, stress, fright, and surprise about the pandemic when interviewed. Persons reported that they had lost their jobs, and that their business hours had decreased because of the curfews. Two persons lost their housing, and one person’s partner lost their income due to the curfew. The other main aspect that half of the participants found challenging was the inability to socialise. “It’s just that we are the ’happy’ people and we like to go outside and we like to engage [in] a lot of activities. But we can’t do that anymore because of COVID. That’s another disappointment,” one participant reported. There were varying opinions on how the authorities were handling the pandemic. A third of the participants said that the authorities’ actions have been inappropriate or insufficient.

Several persons found that the authorities were “trying”, with room for improvement, while the rest said a good job was being done, noting the increased testing and disbursal of the COVID-19 cash grant relief. Mental health was a major issue recorded with four persons reported having no mental health support during the pandemic. Two of them lamented that they felt they had no one to talk to. The report made key recommendations, primarily, given that decreased visits to health facilities are recommended and persons are given longer intervals between appointments. This ties into having a multi-month dispensing as an option and securing stable drug supplies. There is also a strong recommendation for the prioritising of mental health.  SASOD acquired funding from Frontline AIDS, an international organisation, based in London, United Kingdom, to conduct the assessment, which commenced on November 1, 2020.

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