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GM Bicol HIV Response amidst COVID-19 Crisis

by Kevin de Vera

April 24, 2020

#tARVangan Stories:

"Sararo, Sarabay, Kaya Ta Ini": Call to Action

(United and Together, We can do this!)

DARAGA, Albay - Two days after the Luzon-wide Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was declared, GM Bicol launched the "#SararoSarabayKayaTaIni" initiative to help People Living with HIV (PLHIV) affected by ECQ to be linked to health services especially on their antiretroviral medication refills.

To date, GM Bicol is assisting 43 PLHIVs. GM Bicol is the only non-government and community-based group helping the PLHIV community in the region. Helping PLHIVs be linked to care to have access to refills and mental health support also provided them emotional support. Alias Atine from Masbate shared that because of the lockdown, she feared that she won't be able to visit Bicol Regional Training and Teaching Hospital located in Legazpi City for her refills. With GM's chat support, she's able to contact the group's volunteers and was immediately linked to the care she needed. "GM lang sa ngayon ang nagbibigay ng tulong. Nakatulong sila financially. At ang suporta nila ang isa sa mga nakadagdag ng lakas ng loob ko. (GM is the only group providing this kind of support. They also provided financial assistance. The support I got helped me regain my courage,)" she shared.

GM online chat portal is open 24 hours and can be reached through its FB page and FB official account through FB messaging system. At an average, volunteers respond to concerns within an hour. All services are offered free of charge.

As a group of advocates, the organization puts the confidentiality of the clients it supports as a top priority.

GM VP Jed Bailon (right) visits Daraga RHU

"GM members on top of the initiative are trained HIV peer educators and counselors. They are also community-based screening motivators who are competent and professionals especially on providing a safe space to PLHIV clients. Confidentiality of our clients regardless of status is a priority," Jed Bailon, the organization's Vice President said.

"Walls to Keep COVID-19 Out, Locked us Down": Defining the HIV Situation During the Crisis (Regional Situation)

The borders of each town were closed and transportation has been suspended when ECQ was put in place by the national government last March 17, 2020. To control the spread of COVID-19, communities were encouraged to minimize movements of people which affected millions of Filipinos. Unknown to many, a small population group severely affected by the ECQ is the Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV) community.

Alias Mosh, a PLHIV from Camarines Sur shared "Maduwang oras byahe ko pasiring Naga sa hub, pero mayo man ako malulunadan. Ano man magibo ko na ma man sasakyan na naglockdown? (I am almost two hours drive away from the treatment hub, but what I can do if there is no means of transportation due to lockdown?)". His situation is the same with other PLHIVs who are located in towns outside areas where the treatment hubs are situated.

Another PLHIV who shared his worries is Alias Yaja from Sorsogon, "iisip ko pa lang na di na ako makapahub, kikurulbaan na ako, paano na health ko... (realizing that I can no longer go the treatment hub, I became anxious thinking about my health.)" PLHIVs are immunocompromised and rely on their antiretroviral (ARV) medications to keep themselves healthy. These ARV medications are regularly dispensed to PLHIVs through the treatment hubs nearest them.

The Bicol Region, with six provinces = two of which are island provinces, has three Department of Health (DOH) designated HIV Treatment Hubs and Primary HIV Care Facilities which are Bicol Regional Training and Teaching Hospital in Albay, Bicol Medical Center Camarines Sur, and Masbate Provincial Hospital in the Island province of Masbate.

The ECQ is a measure to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but the PLHIV community got trapped in the process. Their life-saving ARVs became inaccessible due to restrictions on cross-border travels and suspension of public transportation. This situation entails gaps in our HIV response.

To respond to the ARV crisis of PLHIVs locked down in their respective homes in the Bicol Region, the DOH Regional Office V assigned ARV refilling hubs in the Provincial Health Offices of Sorsogon, Catanduanes and Masbate.

#tARVangan - Responding to the Clarion Call

Richard Hayag, GM Bicol President shared "the threat is real, so we acted immediately to help address the crisis situation our PLHIV brothers and sisters are in." GM Bicol in coordination with the DOH CHD V and its partner LGUs did an initial assessment by monitoring the supply of medications of each PLHIV. Serving as a PLHIV support group for the past three years, the group was able to assess its clients. However, to those who are not linked to GM, the group also assisted by means of serving as a communication channel with nearest available facility and ARV refilling station.

"Imagine Catanduanes, an island province, think about how would a PLHIV living there would deal with the anxiety that they cannot exit Catanduanes and enter Albay for their medications," Hayag added in describing the crisis situation PLHIVs are in. A number of PLHIV who are from outside Bicol Region but got locked down in the region also contacted the organization to seek assistance in getting their ARV refills.

"Tarabangan" means helping each other. This is a local initiative initiated by GM Bicol to help PLHIVs within the Bicol Region get their ARV refills. In this effort, the group is in partnership with DOH CHD V, treatment facilities, LGUs, and NGOs, and PLHIV support groups in Bicol and outside the region. Hayag explained, "our role as a group is to help PLHIVs get their ARV refills from refilling stations nearest them. We also find ways to provide help in terms of the clients' transportation or if how the ARV medications can be delivered to the clients."

BRTTH HIV/AIDS Core Team expressed its appreciation to the efforts and assistance provided by the group.

COVID-19 is a threat to everyone around the globe. While it affected the lives of many, it also brought advocates together to rethink and reassess the current health system and HIV response in the fringes. Ultimately, it created ripples of promising solutions to such crisis.

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