(PANCAP Coordinating Unit, CARICOM Secretariat): The Pan-Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP), the mechanism that provides a structured and unified approach to the Caribbean’s response to the HIV epidemic, convened a virtual three-day meeting of National AIDS Programme (NAP) Managers, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Key Partners, 16 – 18 June 2020 to discuss the challenges and strategies that are being implemented in the region to respond to the disruption of services posed by the ongoing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic.
The meeting examined the challenges experienced by the region in the delivery of services for HIV and AIDS in the context of COVID-19, the sustainability of the regional response amidst decreasing donor funding and the critical role of civil society in supporting the continuity of care and reaching Key Populations.
Ms Victoria Nibarger, PEPFAR Coordinator, Caribbean Regional Program, Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy (S/GAC), Jamaica stated that as the Region experiences unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic, the NAP Managers and Key Partners Meeting is more important than ever, as it will enable the exchange of vital information and learning for the dual pandemics. She commended the PANCAP team for providing leadership at an incredibly challenging time. She highlighted that this ability to adapt and forge ahead has been “truly impressive”.
In his remarks, Director of PANCAP, Dr Rosmond Adams highlighted the critical need for National AIDS Programme (NAP) Managers and Civil Society Organisations to share knowledge and innovations which are essential for the continuity of HIV services during the COVID-19 Pandemic. He thanked the participants for committing to the meeting and stated that he was pleased that PANCAP could provide the virtual platform essential for knowledge sharing about HIV and COVID-19. He further called for the exploration of new and innovative strategies and greater collaboration among governments, civil society, private sector and community-based organisations with the overarching aim of ending AIDS in the region.
The meeting received updates from Member Countries and Civil Society Organizations on the work that they are doing to respond to the disruptions and to sustain national responses. Ms Aldora Robinson, Director of the Health Promotion and Advocacy Unit within the Ministry of Health, Agriculture and Human Services, Turks and Caicos Islands and the National AIDS Programme Managers Representative on the PANCAP Governance Bodies stated that while these are unprecedented times, there are lessons learnt from the HIV response that can be applied to the COVID-19 response.
She underscored that the gains made in the HIV response could easily be reversed unless urgent efforts are made to sustain the progress made thus far. She stated, “while it may seem that we are at risk of losing momentum in the HIV and AIDS response let me assure you that if we continue to do what we have always done including sensitization of vulnerable groups, collation of statistics, instituting preventative measures, administering treatment, putting people at the centre and strongly engaging our civil society, we will get through this unpredictable and highly dynamic situation.”
The meeting encouraged countries to continue to manage health resources wisely considering the numerous challenges faced by the region and to push for increased domestic resources for health and HIV responses as we move to end AIDS as a public health threat. Countries were encouraged to strengthen multisectoral collaboration, implement sustainability plans and to increase the use of data to guide strategic actions that will advance towards the UNAIDS 90-90-90 Targets.
The PAHO Subregional Program Coordinator for the Caribbean, Ms Jessie Schutt-Aine underscored that the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges in the HIV and STI response. She stated, “COVID-19 has created unprecedented conditions that hinder the capacity of many health systems to access COVID-19 related supplies but also other essential medicines, due to country lockdowns, travel restrictions, fragmented funding sources, and increased costs for certain commodities. A recent study done by PAHO’s Strategic Fund has found that many countries in the Caribbean region are at imminent or high risk of stock out of essential medicines for HIV, STI, TB and other essential medicines. This calls for the need to strengthen supply chain systems, including forecasting in the region”.
She highlighted that PAHO in collaboration with CARICOM and in support of Member States has been focusing on pooled procurement for essential COVID-19 items.
Dr James Guwani, UNAIDS Caribbean Sub-regional Office Director, highlighted that HIV stakeholders bring to the COVID-19 challenge almost forty years’ worth of experience and wisdom in responding to a pandemic. He stated “this is what we know: Testing and treatment on their own will not ensure we combat either COVID-19 or HIV. Community involvement and investment are vital to building trust and getting results. There must be responsiveness to the lived realities, needs and vulnerabilities of all people, especially the most marginalised. And we have to embrace big, bold targets if we are to super-charge our response.
The role of Civil Society Organizations was also underscored as they play a critical role in working at the community level to reach those most in need and to attend to the psychosocial needs of People Living with HIV. Dr Adams noted that civil society is key at getting to the core of the epidemic and that they should be supported and must have an equal seat at the table as a vital stakeholder in the fight against HIV and AIDS. He reiterated the presentation made by Mr Ivan Cruickshank, Executive Directors, Caribbean Vulnerable Coalition (CVC) that civil society must not be an “add-on” but should be an integral part of the multisectoral response.
The PANCAP Director in closing the meeting reminded participants that the work will continue and must continue and that we should not allow COVID-19 to make us push the pause button but to be a reason for us to fast forward and push for progress in the region. He further emphasised that we cannot speak about regional health security if we do not work towards ending AIDS by ensuring that there is a strong regional response to HIV and other communicable diseases.
Mr Winfield Tannis, HIV and AIDS Advocate, lit a candle to recognise the work that has been done throughout the region and to pay tribute to those who have died from AIDS. He also explained that the candle lighting was also meant to pay homage to those working in the field of HIV and AIDS and to encourage them to continue with efforts to achieve the 90-90-90 Targets and ending AIDS by 2030.