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What responses to HIV and COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific led by civil society can teach us

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COVID-19 continues to threaten the gains made in the HIV response and has brought inequalities to the forefront, but civil society and community-based organizations in Asia and the Pacific have been quick to respond to the pandemic. From the start, networks of people living with HIV and key populations responded to the global health crisis by coming up with innovative courses of action.

A side event organized on the margins of the United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS showcased best practices of community-led responses to COVID-19 and HIV prevention in Asia and the Pacific.

It was noted that, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, key population networks have rapidly mobilized volunteers and partners to assist people affected by COVID-19, ensured the continuity of HIV services and found new ways to adapt to the new normal with online-based interventions.

For example, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers responded to the pandemic by modifying its existing programmes to meet the urgent needs of the sex worker community, such as by reallocating funds to subsidize transport costs for sex workers living with HIV to ensure their access to HIV treatment services.

Other regional networks, such as the Asia Pacific Transgender Network, the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV and Youth LEAD, established emergency relief funds to provide emergency food supplies, housing and rent, transport, protective gear, including personal protective equipment, masks, sanitizer and sanitary products for the most affected communities.

In several countries, community-led organizations of people who use drugs delivered door-to-door provisions of antiretroviral therapy and harm reduction services, including opioid substitution therapy and sterile needles and syringes. These experiences have been compiled by the Asia Pacific Network of People who Use Drugs in a best practice report to advocate for the full and equal participation of people who use drugs within the HIV response.

The panellists also heard about the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, which in its national and community-led responses has been supporting community-based HIV testing, working directly with clinics run by the community for the community. Also, APCOM, a regional network for gay men and other men who have sex with men based in Bangkok, Thailand, implemented a condom promotion campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic, known as #PartyPacks, where key populations can order online (for free) packages containing condoms, lubricant and information on harm reduction.

The speakers agreed that service delivery needs to be modernized, domestic investment should be increased and services led by key populations should be integrated into national health systems.

The panellists highlighted that dealing with the colliding pandemics of HIV and COVID-19 requires working in unison and solidarity.

QUOTES “While the journey has not been smooth, one of Australia’s key learnings is that the voices of the community are essential. Communities of people living with HIV and those populations at high risks and young people—communities who, if we are to really make a difference, must have a central role in sharing the view of those most affected by HIV with national governments.”

MITCHELL FIFIELD PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE OF AUSTRALIA TO THE UNITED NATIONS

“Thailand’s effort on HIV/AIDS is one area where civil society plays a particularly vibrant role in our country. We recognized that the collaboration of different sectors, especially civil society and the network of people living with HIV, is one of the most important factors in Thailand’s success in controlling the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

VITAVAS SRIVIHOK PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE OF THAILAND TO THE UNITED NATIONS

“The valuable experiences of communities reflect their long-standing active participation in the response to the HIV epidemic. This is exhibited in the way they continue to innovate at the forefront of the response to HIV and, most recently, address the intersectionality that emerged out of having to respond to the impact of COVID-19 as well.”

EAMONN MURPHY UNAIDS REGIONAL DIRECTOR FOR ASIA AND THE PACIFIC

“Key populations are widely recognized as the pioneers and leaders of the HIV response. Since the emergence of HIV, key populations have led the way in pioneering effective prevention responses, sharing their knowledge and skills with the community as well as providing essential care and support.”

JULES KIM MEMBER OF THE NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION DELEGATION TO THE UNAIDS PROGRAMME COORDINATING BOARD

“Community-led organizations are the most effective way to reach sex workers during emergencies as they are capable of providing therapy assessment, identifying priority areas and allocating the resources for various types of relief for sex workers. This is facilitated by an established peer-to-peer model that is led by the trust and knowledge of peer outreach programmes, which is also able to deliver emergency aid to the most in need.”