COVID-19 Affects Condom Distribution…Sex Workers Fear For Lives

THE Women Against All Forms Of Discrimination (WAAD), an organisation representing rights of sex workers and women has warned of a possible spike in new HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections during the lockdown period due shortages of condoms and other critical sexual reproductive health (SRH) services.

By Michael Gwarisa

Speaking to HealthTimes, WAAD Coordinator, Ms Hazel Zemura said the COVID-19 induced lockdown had affected distribution of essential SRH services especially amongst sex workers who have since moved their trade from clubs and bars to the streets and highways where truck drivers have become the new catch.

We have our members as WAAD who depend on condoms that we distribute to them for free. However, because as Community Based Organisations (CBOs) we do not have accreditation to travel to provinces, our Sex Workers (SWs) in those areas are now saying they have run out of condoms and unfortunately us as an organisation, we cant go there at the moment.

“We have written a letter to the Harare District Administrator  to be exempted and be allowed to travel to these areas but up to now we have received any response. Its been seven weeks without being in touch with our beneficiaries,” said Ms Zemura.

In local pharmacies and other outlets, Protector Plus Condoms are going for ZW$25.00 and ZW$33.00 on Ecocash and according to Ms Zemura, the risk of unprotected sex is very high under these circumstances.

“We are trying to keep in touch with our beneficiaries online by using different virtual platforms to share information but the challenge is they cannot afford data and the information gap among sex workers is widening by the day.

“Sex Workers living with HIV are also living in fear and anxiety  because when this pandemic started, there was talk of underlying health conditions so People Living with HIV do not have access to correct information on HIV and COVID-19. Most materials are available online and communities cannot access it due to data challenges.”

She also added that the risks of SWs succumbing to poorer HIV and health outcomes during this pandemic was high and the criminalization of sex work in Zimbabwe serves to magnifies the already precarious situation for sex workers because when bars and clubs close during the lockdown, sex workers venture into street-based sex work increasing their vulnerability to violence and exploitation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, as with other health crises, exposes existing inequalities and disproportionately affects people already criminalized, marginalized and living in financially precarious situations. To respond to Covid 19 sex workers need access to correct information, continued access to HIV prevention and treatment services (condoms, lubricants, PrEP, PEP, HTS, ART), harm reduction programs (GBV prevention and management, psycho-social support) as well as programs addressing anxiety and depression.”

She also said that the coronavirus pandemic has forced HIV/AIDS service organizations to change operational modalities and everything has taken a drastic turn due to the devastating impact of the novel COVID 19 pandemic.

“Over the years community based organizations have worked together to serve key populations with access to comprehensive and KP friendly information and clinical HIV/SRH services. Through this community engagement, substantial gains have been made in the HIV response.”

Meanwhile, members of key populations (KPs) sex workers (SWs), are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Several factors that elevate SWs risk of HIV acquisition may also place them at higher risk of acquiring coronavirus, such as high mobility and close physical contact with others through social and sexual practices.

“Conversations on Covid 19 tend to focus on people with underlying health conditions with makes our HIV+ sisters, including SWs living with HIV who are not on antiretroviral therapy (ART) and not virally suppressed, who may have a compromised immune system, being placed at a higher risk of coronavirus acquisition and COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.

“With limited social protection schemes; Covid 19 has left SWs at the brink of socio-economic impoverishment, as a result of total loss of income. Sex workers are very concerned about their housing and food situation. Faced with such circumstances; sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health and their lives at increased risk just to survive.”

According to Ms Zemura, data coming from community empowerment during this lockdown points to an increase in experiences of pervasive violence, stigma and discrimination in at home; with SWs reporting violence perpetrated by family members and intimate partners.

“WAAD advocates for uninterrupted  continuation of comprehensive and integrated HIV services for sex workers during the COVID 19 pandemic through: Maintaining access to HIV services and commodities to sex workers during the COVID 19 through alternate commodities and ART distribution plans because clinics and drop-in-centres (DICs) are unable to function because of lockdowns. Movement restrictions make it difficult for PLHIV to access services.

“There is need to strengthen sharing accurate and reliable information on COVID 19 to sex workers and the broader community of people living with HIV.”

She also said there was nee to explore the use of online enhanced peer outreach approaches to maintain contact with beneficiaries; particularly younger sex workers (18-24 years) for beneficiaries to engage and share safety precautions to reduce exposure to COVID 19, supporting peer adherence to HIV treatment; facilitating platforms for sex workers to  distress from anxieties caused by loss of income and lockdowns, sharing information that links sex workers to supportive services, such as for nutrition, safe housing, and child support.

“Strengthening online response to violence; enabling beneficiaries to report experiences of violence; ensuring sex workers have access to online counselling services and linking victims to post violence services. Yes we are going online but with limited access to internet services and data charges; people are concerned with bread and butter issues.”

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