Key population networks in Asia and the Pacific amplify the impact of community-led responses to COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe, it became clear that fears of contracting COVID-19, misinformation and subsequent stigma were major factors deterring people seeking HIV prevention and treatment services. In response to these insights, regional key population networks from Asia and the Pacific, including ANPUD, APCOM, APN+, APNSW, APTN, ICW AP, Youth LEAD and the IATT on YKP, in collaboration with UNAIDS, came together to implement a regional project to promote access to relevant and timely information about COVID-19 targeted to key populations, and record best practices from community-led responses.

The regional project, “Strengthening the regional community response to the needs of key populations in the context of COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific”, was implemented between May and September 2020 with the main goal of promoting access to relevant and timely information about HIV and COVID-19 targeted to key populations, to empower them to protect their health and seek assistance when necessary. The project also contributed to monitoring the COVID-19 response from the ground and assessing how the pandemic has been affecting key populations. Furthermore, the project has showed how community-led organizations have leveraged the structures and networks from the HIV response to remove barriers to access health services and tackle stigma and discrimination.

History has shown that it is critical that communities are engaged in governance, policy-making and service delivery in order to effectively respond to community needs during an epidemic. Through a variety of activities carried out by the regional networks and their local partners, the project has engaged communities in the response to COVID-19 pandemic, ensured frequent sharing of information, directed key populations to available health services during lockdowns and shared best practices and lessons learned that can be replicated across the region.

A report compiled by the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD) is an example of how community-led best practices in the contexts of India and Indonesia are being shared widely with partners. Drawing on experiences from network members, the report highlights innovative advocacy initiatives to address gaps in community service delivery. The report shows that community groups across India have partnered with State AIDS Control Societies (SACS) to conduct overdose prevention and management training, thereby creating increased awareness towards preventing and managing emergencies due to drug-related overdose. Community-led organizations have also negotiated with harm-reduction services to allow people to take home or have delivered opioid substitution therapy and antiretroviral therapy supplies. The report details various negotiation efforts in India with state-level authorities to ensure service delivery during the lockdown. While in Indonesia, HIV support groups have channeled their efforts to virtual services by facilitating virtual HIV support group meetings, workshops on HIV and COVID-19, and online counseling sessions with psychologists for community members.

The Inter-agency Task Team on Young Key Populations (IATT-YKP) has turned to online spaces by launching a youth-friendly, crowdsourcing website that pools available information and guidance on COVID-19 to cater to the needs of young key populations (YKPs) and young people living with HIV. The development of the website was led by Youth LEAD, UNAIDS and UNICEF with support from IATT-YKP members. Navigating the different sections of the page, audiences will find an analysis of findings from the COVID-19 and YKP surveys, toolkits and guidance for supporting youth during COVID-19, campaigns in the region that youth can engage with, information about available relief funds and grants, and stories accounting the lived experiences from young people across the region. The YKP Projects and Stories page highlights many initiatives led by young people, for young people and how YKPs are active in the response such as online psychosocial counseling for marginalized youth and the distribution of food and menstrual and dental hygiene kits. The Resource page hosts a collection of best practices and strategic information on YKP during COVID-19 meant to strengthen evidence-informed programming. IATT-YKP partners regularly update the website to share emerging best practices and reflect where projects are being implemented across the region.

Through social media channels, the International Community of Women Living with HIV in Asia Pacific (ICWAP) has provided information about COVID-19 prevention and access to ARV treatment and linked people facing challenges in accessing antiretroviral therapy to health facilities. In partnership with UNAIDS, ICWAP has also conducted a situation assessment and findings from this survey were compiled into a report outlining the realities of women living with HIV. The report builds a strong argument for how networks of women living with HIV can be powerful allies for governments to ensure that aid reaches the people in need, while also advocating that essential health services must remain available despite funding and staff being diverted to COVID-19. The report captures best practices, thereby informing HIV response by women’s networks to mitigate current challenges. The findings from the survey have also informed a position paper to advocate for the right to health of women and girls living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific.

Some networks in the region have created communications products to share more information about COVID-19, its impact at the community level and community-led responses. Launched in April at the beginning of the pandemic, and continues to now, APCOM’s newsletter serves as a virtual announcement board of available resources including mental health services, and webcasts for community members. Issues 1-8 features forty stories shared by community members from across the region. These human-interest stories are meant to raise visibility of human rights violations, and challenges faced by LGBTI persons and people living with HIV in accessing health services. They also reflect the inspiring work of activists and organizations in the region and document advancements at the policy level. Examples of these initiatives include how community-led HIV services are providing antiretroviral therapy and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and showcase fundraising efforts for food packages. The stories are also a channel to convey advocacy messages calling for flexibility in donor funding for activities that are needed by the community. The series amplifies community voices that have often been unheard in COVID-19 narratives.

The Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and Youth LEAD have partnered to curate a series of six feature stories, entitled “Dignity Amidst COVID-19: Trans youth leading the response”, which profiles trans and gender diverse youth leaders that are answering the call for support with inspiring initiatives to assist those in their communities in India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Samoa, and Thailand. Contributors to the series shared powerful stories of reflection of their identity, the challenges they face in their country as trans and gender diverse people, and uplifting words of support and solidarity to other trans and gender diverse youth in the Asia and the Pacific region. Standing witness to the increasing adversity that trans and gender diverse people in their communities face during COVID-19, these young activists shared how they are taking action in their communities in a wide variety of ways from distributing first aid and hygiene kits, to setting up a mental health hotline, and fundraising efforts to support disenfranchised members of their community.

In an effort to capture the strides made by its members, the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (APN+) has developed a document compiling best practices in advocacy and service delivery. The document shares experiences from different countries where community groups raised their voices to advocate that HIV programs continue in conjunction with efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Advocacy efforts amongst APN+ constituencies in India include the creation of a guidance note for people engaged in the HIV response under the National AIDS Control Programme in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with other grassroots organizations and UN agencies to jointly coordinate advocacy efforts with the government have proven effective for APN+ constituencies to ensure emergency support and adherence to treatment for people living with HIV in Bangladesh and Myanmar. These are a sampling of the best practices being implemented by many members of APN+ including advocacy efforts that are more effective when organizations combine forces and share accurate information, sourced from communities, with decision-makers and donors.

When COVID-19 swept through the Asia-Pacific region, sex workers were some of the first people to see their means of income disappear as a result of travel restrictions and closure of entertainment venues. Consequently, sex workers were unable to feed themselves and their dependents, pay for housing, seek healthcare, or access lifesaving antiretroviral medicines, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) or gender-based violence (GBV) services. Given these circumstances, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), UNFPA and UNAIDS, have partnered together on an initiative meant to document and disseminate successful community-led measures that sex workers have identified and implemented in order to strengthen responses to COVID-19. The case studies will include focus on challenges affecting sex worker communities during the pandemic, as well as their approaches for identifying gaps, solutions and community-driven innovations.

ADVOCACY MESSAGES

In light of the rise of discrimination documented during the COVID-19 pandemic UNAIDS and the regional key population networks partnered to develop a social media package and a set of key messages for advocacy. Drawing on the lessons learned from the HIV response, the campaign urged people to act with kindness, not stigma and discrimination, and respect people living with HIV, key populations and people affected by COVID-19. The package also contained recommendations for governments and development organizations to ensure that the emergency response efforts do not leave anyone behind.

Throughout the region grassroots organizations and community groups are rallying together – most armed with few resources, all making substantial difference in the lives of key populations and people living with HIV. UNAIDS and key population networks will continue to share the achievements and challenges faced by these community-led responses in an effort to ensure that vulnerable groups are not left behind and given accurate and timely information to protect themselves.

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