THE Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) Guyana on Wednesday met with Health Minister Dr. Frank Anthony to discuss a gamut of issues experienced by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LBGTQ+) population in Guyana.
The issues discussed were findings of two recent reports by the organisation: ‘Qualitative Assessment of HIV Services for Key Populations in Guyana during the COVID-19 Pandemic (January 2021)’ and ‘Desires for Care and Access to Services among Transgender Persons in Guyana (March 2020)’.
During an interview with the Guyana Chronicle on Thursday, Managing-Director of SASOD, Joel Simpson, who was present at the meeting described the meeting as “extremely productive and very positive,” as the minister reassured the organisation of his ministry’s commitment to tackling the issues raised.
Also present at the meeting were Programme Manager of the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), Dr. Tariq Jagnarine; SASOD Guyana’s Human Rights Coordinator, Kobe Smith and SASOD’s Guyana Community Representative on the Guyana Global Fund Country Coordinating Mechanism, Christopher France.
The group had the opportunity to discuss directly with the minister and the programme manager of NAPS, the recommendations contained in the reports, as well as highlight their expectations in relation to public health that they had published in their “elections manifesto.”
A key finding of the qualitative assessment of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) services during the pandemic related to persons struggling with issues pertaining to mental health, as many of the participants in the study reported not being able to access mental health services during the pandemic.
“One of our major recommendations was that mental health needed to be addressed. The minister agreed completely and he updated us that the ministry is currently revising a draft Mental Health Bill that the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Government started to develop in 2010 and that they would be sharing the draft bill with us for our input and perspectives,” Simpson said.
“He [the minister] also mentioned that there is going to be a new mental health strategy for 2021 to 2025 and he invited us to participate in those consultations and make input on the development of the strategy so the issues affecting our community can be addressed,” he added.
PREP & PEP
Two of the requests contained in SASOD’s ‘elections manifesto’ pertained to making pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) available in the public healthcare system free of charge for persons who are at substantial risk of contracting HIV and allowing persons who have been exposed to HIV to access post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
“We got a commitment from the programme manager for the NAPS that PrEP would be made available in the public health sector as they are currently working on putting the protocols in place, training and sensitising stakeholders and putting facilities in place,” Simpson related.
He explained that the minister was also briefed on the current practice that PEP can only be accessed in the public health system if someone experiences sexual violence and a police report is made; SASOD recommended that this policy be changed.
A key finding in ‘Desires for Care and Access to Services among Transgender Persons in Guyana’ report discussed at the meeting was in relation to gender- affirming care.
Gender-affirming healthcare refers to procedures, such as hormone therapy, that helps to align one’s body with their gender identity. Simpson highlighted that there is a lack of such healthcare in Guyana, especially in the public health sector.
He noted that this poses a significant problem as some persons choose to self-medicate, which can have detrimental effects.
“The minister was very familiar with this challenge affecting “trans” persons in Guyana and he mandated Dr. Tariq Jagnarine to look into this issue specifically,” Simpson disclosed.
“He requested to identify two or three doctors who could be trained specially in “trans” medicine and they’re looking to possibly use the National Care and Treatment Centre as a site where persons can access gender-affirming care,” he added.
Simpson explained that the minister had noted that these services are not available in Guyana or elsewhere in the English-Speaking Caribbean; and he would like Guyana to develop a site for “trans” medicine and gender-affirming care within the next two to three years.
Another concern for LGBTQ+ individuals as the pandemic unfolds was whether health services, specifically HIV services, would be readily accessible as per the modus operandi prior to the pandemic.
“Minister was clear that health services need to continue at the same level and quality that existed prior to the pandemic and he mandated Dr. Jagnarine to write all of the doctors that fell under their programme to remind them that access to and quality of medical services should not be reduced, restricted or curtailed in any way due to COVID-19,” Simpson said.
Simpson expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting. He was particularly elated at the interest the minister took to familiarise himself with the reports prior to the meeting and the minister’s commitment to involve the organisation in consultations.
“I would describe the meeting as extremely productive and very positive because the minister ensured the NAPS programme manager was there and as soon as the minister signalled his agreement in a particular area, within our presence, he gave a directive to the programme manager on implementation and gave further directives to work with us to action the recommendations,” Simpson said.
He noted that SASOD currently meets with Dr. Jagnarine on a weekly basis and he looks forward to continue working with him in the future to implement the recommendations they discussed.
SASOD also presented the minister with a copy of an older report titled ‘TRAPPED; Cycles of Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons in Guyana,’ conducted by the Georgetown University Law Centre’s Human Rights Institute in 2018 for the minister to become familiar with that report as well.