EC HIV AIDs programmes devastated by Covid-19 pandemic

Issued by Jane Cowley, MPL
Shadow MEC for Health

As the world commemorates HIV AIDS Awareness Day, it is perhaps fitting to look at the overwhelming impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the lives of those living with HIV AIDS, and the programmes meant to make a difference in the fight against this silent killer.

Sadly the Covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated communities and upset economies across the globe, has impacted very severely on our province, our health department and our people.

As a result, programmes to address the prevention and treatment of HIV AIDS as well as Tuberculosis (TB) were negatively affected by staff having to shift focus to contend with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Several key targets for the treatment of HIV AIDS were not met in the first and second quarter of this financial year. Condom distribution, which fell to 26 821 509 units against a target of 46 638 586 units, while HIV testing fell to 713 513 people tested, against a target of 874 246 people tested.

Most concerning, however, is the fact that 25 866 HIV patients did not collect their treatment and could not be accounted for (were lost to follow up) during the lockdown.

This break in treatment could have a devastating impact on many patients’ resilience to the disease and there is every likelihood that some patients would have succumbed to AIDS during this period.

The Department of Health has devised several strategies to address the challenges encountered in the first two quarters, such as intensified screening for HIV, working closely with supporting partners, the rollout of drugs which enhance suppression of the disease and running a “Welcome Back” campaign to encourage defaulters to return to their treatment regimen.

The fly in the ointment is the current strong resurgence of the Covid-19 virus in several parts of the province.

This means that an already compromised staff complement will be hard pushed to resume the necessary strategies to improve the prevention and treatment of HIV AIDS, as they once again take up arms against Covid-19.

Staff shortages continue to haunt the Department of Health. Vacant funded posts are purposefully not filled, in order to redirect funds to settle medico-legal claims against the department, most notably caused by negligence as a result of staff shortages. Catch -22.

In a capable state, accountable leadership would take the bold but necessary decision to fill all vacant funded posts and produce a real organogram that speaks to the requirements of the health sector. Sadly, in the Eastern Cape, the leadership in the Health Department does not have the capacity to do either.

As a result, essential programmes such as those meant to address HIV AIDS, will suffer while patients are again lost to follow up. HIV AIDS will remain a killer in the province instead of being brought under control.

While great strides have been made in upscaling the prevention and treatment of this dread disease in the Eastern Cape, much more needs still to be done before we can safely declare that HIV AIDS no longer poses a threat to our people.