The Impact of Civil Society Networks in Responding to Two Global Pandemics: HIV and COVID-19

MPact’s own Johnny Tohme spoke on the Robert Carr Fund’s July 7 panel at AIDS2020 Virtual about the importance of ensuring a community-led response to COVID-19. Here is his intervention:

“I want to thank the Robert Carr Fund for their continuous support and this opportunity to represent my fellow grantees, and more importantly the voice of our communities.

Concerns: We are clearly off track to end AIDS by 2030. UNAIDS estimated that we need 6.8 billion for comprehensive service packages for KP between 2016 and 2018, while we only had 1.3 billion, showing a resource gap of 80%. With HIV programs severely underfunded, COVID-19 is furthermore jeopardizing the existence of sufficient HIV resources, especially for KP, seeing that KP programming is the first to get sacrificed in national re-planning under COVID. HIV health structures and chains are dealt a hard blow, making it harder for people to access HIV services, to get their medications and to get the social support they need. The scapegoating and attack on our communities in relation to COVID-19 (especially the LGBT and sex workers community) made it even harder for them to get the resources they need and access life-saving services.

Opportunities: With most circumstances stacked up against our communities during this pandemic, it was remarkable how we banded together, took the lead on awareness and mobilization, while drawing lessons from the HIV response.

Being positioned at the global and regional levels, at the one hand, we lobbied donors and UN agencies, to publicly support and call for preservation of our rights and resources. One example is a joint statement in April by UNAIDS and MPact, expressing the concerns about reports that LGBTI people are being blamed and abused during the COVID-19 outbreak. On the other hand, we worked tirelessly to support and virtually convene our constituents on country levels, to collect and forward resources when possible, ensuring their sustainability. Not being necessarily service providers ourselves, we have a long history of creating and utilizing systems within the virtual world, to communicate, engage each-other, and carry on most of our work. This has proven to be essential in COVID time. In matter of weeks, we equipped and taught our country counterparts, how to shift into a virtual world, how to shape their advocacy to governments and other stakeholders, but more importantly, to mobilize each other as we’ve fed, clothed and sheltered those of us who were the most affected. Showing once again, that communities can do a lot with so little and under extreme pressure.

Asks: UNAIDS told us yesterday that over half of new HIV infections happen among key populations (62%). And in regions like EECA, and MENA, Key populations account for 95% of new infections. On the other hand, and between 2016 and 2018, $57 billion were invested in the HIV response in LMICs. And how much of that went to specific KP programming? 2%. So basically, we have communities that hold 62% of the new HIV infections burden, who are being specifically targeted by only 2% of the HIV funding in LMICs. It’s ridiculous, and It doesn’t make sense. We know treatment works (U=U) and we know PrEP works. We have all the knowledge and tools to end this epidemic. So, where is the missing link? it’s investing in KP-led programming. We know where our brothers and sisters are, we know how to reach them, how to talk to them and how to serve them. We need money to do that, and we need local governments to get off our backs and stop throwing us in jails, harassing us, refusing to protect us from stigma and discrimination because it’s killing us. It’s 2020 and we’re still dying every day on the streets from government sanctioned violence, from AIDS, and now from COVID-19.

As such, we have 3 main asks from donors:

  1. Invest in key populations led programs as a priority, including programs that allow for mental health support and economic empowerment.
  2. Reprimand governments that violently and proudly violate the rights of our communities and refuse to include us in a response that is directly about us. If we’re really serious about ending this epidemic, at some point diplomacy needs to give way to a stronger tone, and funds should be conditional of a serious and safe engagement of our communities in leading the response, with removal of laws and regulations that put our very existence at risk.
  3. Trust us and trust our ability to make the right decisions on how to respond. Allow for flexibility in how we spend our resources in times of emergencies. COVID-19 taught us how quickly our environment can shift, and we need to be able to shift and evolve with it.

Thank you”

Johnny Tohme – Community Mobilization Manager – MPact