COVID-19 has brought new challenges for many people living with HIV in Jamaica:

“I am concerned about going to the clinic too often, but I can only get one month’s supply of antiretrovirals at a time.”

“The place I normally go to meet with my community facilitator is no longer available. Now how do I access care?”

“I haven’t been taking my medicines the way I should. Am I going to catch COVID-19?”

For Dane Lewis, Programme Manager of the Jamaica Network of Seropositives (JN+), addressing the community’s anxieties has cleared a path to more connection and support.

“JN+ started doing a survey almost immediately. We reached about 70% of our membership. This was an opportunity to reconnect to our base, to see what the needs were. It helped us to re-establish contact and brought our community closer together,” he said. “Ultimately we think this pandemic will help us bring and keep more people in care.”

There are an estimated 32 000 people living with HIV on the Caribbean island. In 2019, just 44% of them were on antiretroviral therapy, while roughly one third (35%) were virally suppressed. While most people access treatment through the public health-care sector, community organizations like JN+ play a key role in supporting people to start antiretroviral therapy and stay the course.

They’ve also been a critical partner during COVID-19. Despite having a multimonth dispensing policy, the Jamaica Government has authorized just monthly dispensing in order to avoid stock-outs.

“Community organizations like JN+ have allayed fears and followed-up so that people continue their treatment,” said UNAIDS Jamaica Country Director, Manoela Manova. “That’s why it’s important that civil society is at the decision-making table and that community workers are classified as essential workers during COVID-19.”

For the organization’s retention navigators, not much has changed. They continue to reach out to clients via the telephone to check in on whether they are taking their medicines as they should. There has been more of a shift for community facilitators, who were traditionally connected to treatment sites. Face-to-face support has largely given way to telephone calls and video chats. Twice a month, online sessions are used to address wide-ranging community concerns. JN+ team members are on hand to do things like drop off care packages or connect clients affected by community lockdowns to new treatment sites. The organization has also helped people register to receive financial support from the state.

“There has been a lot of anxiety about being able to access basic food and sanitation items. People lost jobs because of the pandemic, so anxieties turned into real needs for many. We had to stop doing in-person activities, such as our support groups, and refocus our energies on coordinating the peers to provide care packages. The support and network we offer have been important,” Mr Lewis explained.

The JN+ COVID-19 experience underlines the key role that community organizations play in helping clients to access resources.

UNAIDS Jamaica has been working to support the response at the practical and tactical levels. It provided hygiene products to be widely distributed and also facilitated weekly collaboration between civil society organizations responding to the needs of people living with HIV during COVID-19.

“Community organizations save lives,” said Ruben Pages, UNAIDS Jamaica’s Community Mobilization Adviser. “The JN+ experience shows why it is important to support community organizations that are able to reach marginalized people with unique support that those in need are not able to find anywhere else.”