COVID-19 – The Second Coming
J.V.R. Prasada Rao – HIV/AIDS Ambassador
The resurgence of the COVID-19 epidemic after a period of quiet, leaves a feeling of déjà vu of similar experiences with the AIDS epidemic which also initially resulted in flattening the curve of new infections but failed to meet fast track targets. In both instances, we have seen the most marginalised and vulnerable populations being disproportionally impacted by the epidemics.
During the COVID-19 crisis we have witnessed vulnerable and marginalised people losing not only essential services provided by national AIDS and TB control programmes, such as ART services, prevention interventions, including condoms, needles and syringes, but also vulnerable and marginalised people losing their basic livelihoods. What has made matters worse, is that even the minimal support that governments were trying to provide did not reach vulnerable populations in most need. On rare occasions, organisations such as the Global Fund, attempted to provide direct support to communities, but even these efforts got stuck in bureaucratic delays.
A glaring inadequacy in COVID-19 responses is the top- down nature with no or little involvement of grassroots organisations and communities in many Asia Pacific countries. From federal level to the ground, the majority of staff t engaged in COVID-19 responses are public health care workers, employed by the government, or law enforcement officials. Communities are regarded as beneficiaries rather than equal partners. This lack of meaningful involvement of communities has also resulted in complacency when the epidemic began to show a downward trend. It was a matter of time before the second and third surge of infections happened catching the countries off guard. In contrast, the hallmark of responding to AIDS was the close involvement of infected and affected communities as equal partners and stakeholders in prevention and treatment programmes.
There is no evidence to show that the immunity generated by vaccines will be long lasting. While mass vaccination could be an immediate solution to halt the epidemic, a more sustained response will only be possible with closer and more equal involvement of communities.