By Matthews Kasanda
Malawians living with HIV in some parts of the country have bemoaned reduced attention to their welfare as Covid-19 has taken away almost all the focus from the healthcare system, The Sunday Times has established.
But we have also learnt that some of those living with HIV have not been going to hospital for fear of being tested for Covid-19, raising HIV treatment defaults.
For about a year now, Malawi has been battling to contain the spread of Covid-19 which has claimed over 1000 lives now.
As of March 26, 2021, the Ministry of Health reported 1,112 deaths so far due to Covid-19. In the frantic attempt to contain the epidemic, some organisations have also scaled down their HIV and Aids interventions and are focusing on Covid-19. And some Malawians living with HIV and Aids are complaining that they have been left in the cold as they no longer get supplementary food stuff to enrich their diet and money which they have been using to travel to hospitals.
The Sunday Times spoke with those on Anti Retrioviral Therapy (ART) living in rural areas of Lilongwe.
One of them is a 74-year old woman (name withheld) from Chitukula village. A mother of nine who tested positive in 2014, she is one of the people affected after Light House scaled down its services in the area and turned attention to Covid-19, she said.
Through Light House’s interventions, she was able to get supplies such as supplementary food recommended for people living with HIV and Aids.
This supply is no longer available and she is now looking for K20, 000 so that she can start a small business to be able to buy the food which is recommended for her condition.
When Times crew visited her at her home, her only meal that day was pumpkins which she was cooking. She complained that poor diet is making her lose weight.
“Because of the poor diet due to the lack of food, I have been losing weight. At times, my weight has gone as low as 35 kilogrammes. Before Covid-19, there were organisations assisting me with food but they have now stopped coming,” she said.
For survival, she does piece works in other people’s fields but she earns too little to get by.
No more support group meetings
Another person experiencing the Covid-19 effect lost her husband in 1991 and was enrolled on ART in 2000. She said because of Covid-19, she and her friends can no longer attend support groups meetings where organisations would give them lunch allowances.
“We would use the allowances for transport to health facilities,” she said from her mud grass-thatched house, also in Chitukula village.
Another of our interviewees is a man who has two wives who are HIV positive.
During the interview, he said he and his wives were relying on financial support from organisations for them to be able to travel to hospital. But since Covid-19 came, travel to hospital has been hard as even piece work does not suffice.
He told The Sunday Times that one day, one of his wives was paid pumpkins after some piece work in the village.
His challenge is now to get money for transport for himself and the two wives to a health facility every month for medication.
He said he cannot manage to raise K4,500.00 for the trio for kabaza transport.
“I cannot manage to get that much every month. We just walk for hours to get to the health facility. I have challenges in feeding my family. This Covid-19 has worsened our situation because organisations have stopped coming here for meetings where we could get some allowances and support,” he said.
Covid-19 fears, more defaulting ART Focal person for a local organisation called Afrocab which supports people with HIV and Aids in Lumbadzi in Lilongwe Owen Kapheramantha said organisations that were assisting people in the area with transport or food have stopped, leading to more defaulters on treatment.
“People walk long distances to get the ARVs. The coming of Covid-19 has made some of them stop going to the health facilities fearing the Covid-19 tests, and as a result we are having more defaulters,” he said.
‘We follow policy’
One of such organisations is Light House which used to organise meetings with those on ART and provide them with allowances. The organisation also used to buy supplementary food.
Light House public relations officer, Miriam Chipanda, said they had no choice but to follow government policy to suspend meetings with support groups due to Covid-19.
“Apart from our own policies within our organisation, we also follow government policy, so the Ministry of Health suspended some activities,” she explained.
Chipanda said her organisation is also concerned because those on ART need support that has been suspended.
“And those with HIV are at high risk of suffering from Covid-19,” she warned.
Health rights activist Maziko Matemba agreed that there is laxity by some organisations in the fight against HIV and Aids because of Covid-19.
“It is time to redouble our efforts and put more energy. I am aware certain programmes have stopped. Listening from those voices, we need to make HIV services better and also accessible to many without any disruption or discrimination,” he said.
Decentralisation through mobile clinics HIV Care and Treatment Program Officer in the Ministry of Health, Brown Chiwandira, said the ministry recognises health system challenges that have come with the Covid-19.
“Through the Department of HIV and AIDS, the ministry is supporting decentralisation of HIV services to mobile clinics throughout all the 29 district health offices,” he said.
Chiwandira added that the initiative includes provision of fuel and other enablers to necessitate clinic operations with support from the Global Fund.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3, calls for Good Health and Well-being “to ensure healthy lives and to promote well-being for all at all ages.”