AKTA, Tokyo, Japan
AKTA has been running community center in Tokyo’s LGBTQ+ area, Shinjuku 2-chome since 2003. Being at the heart of the community in Tokyo, we’re very honoured to hear from AKTA and how they have been coping during COVID-19 pandemic.
What services were you providing before COVID-19 outbreak?
We mainly target men who have sex with men and conduct HIV and sexually transmitted infections prevention activities. Our activities are centered on outreach program in shops, and bars in Shinjuku 2-chome and online collaborating with the community, NGOs, governments, medical institutions, and researchers. Prior to the outbreak, we were providing:
- Operation of community center – a safe space for LGBTQ+
- Outreach activities in Shinjuku 2-chome and Greater Tokyo
- Consultation and support
- Providing HIV testing
With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you pivot your work to serve the community?
Since face-to-face outreach activities was not possible, we started to strengthen online information programs. We are posting COVID-19 related information on our website akta.jp and providing consultation via emails and social media like LINE.
As outreach programs were not possible, we used YouTube to provide information regarding COVID-19 and HIV. We were not able to operate from the community center, we switched to online meetings using Google meet and Zoom.
Although it was no longer possible to hold face-to-face meetings with the government and medical institutions, we shared the current situation of the community and discussed with them by frequent e-mails and online meetings.
We were able to submit an advocacy letter to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare together with 34 NOGs and researchers working on HIV in Japan, as the national policy on COVID-19 did not involve the presence of key populations, LGBTQ+, sex workers, and foreign migrant workers.
What were the issues that your clients/beneficiaries experienced during this time?
In Japan, free and anonymous HIV testing is available at public health centers. But they have become hubs for COVID-19 control. Many hospitals have also stopped offering HIV testing. As a result, many people are unable to receive HIV testing.
The problem of continuing treatment for foreign HIV-positive people has arisen. Many foreign HIV-positive people are not able to receive treatment for HIV through the Japanese medical system. Although they received the drugs in their home country, they couldn’t return to their home country because of COVID-19. If they cannot do so, they cannot continue the treatment.
There were problems with individual importers of PrEP, such as not being able to receive generic drugs.
Have you, your staff, and volunteers been able to stay safe from COVID-19, and what did you/staff/volunteer do to cope with the mental stress?
Luckily, we have not had any positive COVID-19 cases from our staff so far. Though, our staff members are highly stressed about having to stay at home during the state of emergency. So, we had regular online meetings with staff to discuss what’s been going on, and that helped to reduce stress.
As you come out of the lockdowns, what services will you continue to do, and what would you cease, and what would you add?
The government request for voluntary curfew in Japan ended at the end of May, we have been gradually starting the conventional services from the beginning of June.
Reports of COVID-19 infections in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward have been concentrated. Despite being in the same Shinjuku Ward, the government’s measures haven’t reached Shinjuku 2-chome, an LGBTQ+ area. Therefore, a countermeasure network of akta and other NGOs, gay bar owners, and others has been established. The network has begun holding workshops and consultation sessions and creating materials to combat COVID-19.
How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that your organisation will be working in the future?
We continued to reduce the number of in-person services and strengthen online programs. We are also considering the introduction of Self Testing and other methods of HIV testing that can be carried out entirely online. Currently, we are collaborating with the research institute in the U.K. to develop methods of distributing test kits in vending machines.
What are the worries from your community about the ‘new normal’?
We are worried about the division within the community. Currently, customers are not coming back to Shinjuku 2-chome and other areas where LGBTQ+ people used to gather in person. Even if we offer online programs and information, the “sense of solidarity” will fade.
We are concerned that COVID-19 will delay HIV prevention and treatment because of the concentration of attention and government resources are on COVID-19.
We are worried that the instability of the economic situation will lead to greater social problems such as suicide. Especially, since there are a lot of LGBTQ+ youth who don’t have very good mental health in Japan, we are concerned about the impact of such deteriorating economic conditions.
Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?
Both NGOs and communities have created social networking groups on LINE and other online platforms. And these groups have become a loose online social network. Although they have not yet taken concrete political action, they have been able to report on their recent situation and provide support to each other. There is also a growing expectation from the community for our NGO.
What resources or support system helped you to get through this harsh time? What further support would you need?
The good practices of LGBTQ+ local NGOs in response to Covid-19 should be shared. In this COVID-19 situation, as in the case of HIV, key populations were either put on the back burner or ignored in Japanese government measures. Once again, we want to appeal the importance of the participation and support of key populations to the Japanese government. So, Japanese NGOs submitted the demanding paper to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. On the other hand, as Japanese government is a country that is vulnerable to external pressure, we would like to change the policies in response to external pressure.