‘It’s very difficult' – People living with HIV fear contracting COVID-19

Tuesday is the 32nd anniversary of World Aids Day and according to the United Nations, 38 million people globally were living with HIV in 2019. More than 7.7 million of them are in South Africa.

FILE: A nurse conducts an HIV test at a voluntary testing centre. Picture: EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - People living with HIV and Aids have shared their experiences of managing the COVID-19 pandemic while trying to stay safe.

Tuesday marks the 32nd anniversary of World Aids Day and according to the United Nations, 38 million people globally were living with HIV in 2019. More than 7.7 million of them are in South Africa.

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Once considered a death sentence, HIV/Aids is now a manageable chronic disease but COVID-19 has presented some new challenges.

“My daily life got complicated the day COVID-19 came. Now I have to worry what if I get worse?”

Pholokgolo Ramothwala has been living with HIV for nearly half of his life after being diagnosed when he was just 19 years old.

An activist and founder of the online support group, Positive Connection Network, Ramothwala said the coronavirus had changed how he went about his daily life.

“I went to Soweto this other weekend; most people were not wearing their masks. It creates anxiety for people like me. You don't know who others have come in contact with, you do your best to protect yourself.”

Judith Mazibuko, who has been living with HIV for 23 years, shared the same anxieties.

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Last month, doctors thought she had contracted COVID-19 but it turned out to be seasonal flu.

“They just admit me for one day, because I was coughing a lot. They screened me, and they realised I don’t have COVID-19. It’s very difficult for me, it’s very difficult.”

People living with HIV and Aids have been encouraged to reach out to support structures like the Positive Connection Network, their families or community groups to help ease the mental health burden of the pandemic.

South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world, however Aids-related deaths and infections have come down significantly over the last decade, thanks to government and other interventions.

But COVID-19 is threatening to reverse these gains.

THE STRUGGLE OF GETTING MEDICATION

When COVID-19 unexpectedly swooped in across the world, other critical services inevitably took a back seat.

This happened with HIV treatment in South Africa, where 62% of people living with the virus are dependent on medication.

The Treatment Action Campaign, which advocates for access to HIV treatment and support, said getting hold of antiretrovirals became a huge problem especially in the early days of lockdown.

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Chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala added that factors including the closure of clinics dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks contributed to this.

“If a person is not taking their meds, the viral load will be high. That means he or she can transmit to another person, people develop drug resistance if they don't take medication as they should.”

Earlier this year, the Gauteng Department of Health embarked on a plan to track down nearly 11,000 patients who had failed to collect their ARVs during lockdown.

Tshabalala said they were concerned about the long-term impact this could have on the fight against HIV and Aids and more people losing their lives.

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