Feature story

Lessons learned from HIV for COVID-19 in Senegal

03 June 2020

Forty years of responding to the HIV epidemic has provided considerable experience on the importance of a human rights-based approach to all epidemics. UNAIDS spoke to Abdoulaye Ka, who is responsible for human rights issues at the Senegal National AIDS Control Council (known as the CNLS in the country), about the lessons that the CNLS has learned from the response against HIV that can be applied to the fight against COVID-19.

How is Senegal addressing stigma and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The experience of the fight against stigma and discrimination related to HIV services has enabled the CNLS to draw the attention of the national COVID-19 management committee and public opinion to the importance of developing communication materials adapted to specific communities. The involvement of affected communities in the definition, implementation and follow-up of COVID-19 programmes has helped to reduce stigma around the disease.

The CNLS Executive Secretary has made several broadcasts to explain the importance of simplifying messages for communities, including to help them develop their own community responses.

The psychosocial care unit in Dakar is also being supported by the CNLS to draw lessons from the experience of HIV and stigma and discrimination in its work against COVID-19.

What measures are being taken to deal with the socioeconomic consequences of COVID-19 in Senegal?

To respond to the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on individuals and households, Senegal has deployed an economic and social resilience programme and has earmarked a budget of 1 trillion West African francs (about US$ 1.7 billion) to support the economic sectors most affected by the crisis and to provide food aid to the most vulnerable. A total of 59 billion west African francs (about US$ 100 million) has been earmarked to buy food for one million eligible households.

In particular, the CNLS is partnering with UN Women to increase the resilience of women living with HIV through the provision of food and hygiene kits.

How is the response to COVID-19 in Senegal responding to the specific needs of people living with HIV?

To respond to the needs identified by the national network of people living with HIV, the country is moving to multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral medicines, in accordance with the guidance of the World Health Organization. We are collaborating with service providers and communities in assessing needs in order to avoid stock-outs.  

The CNLS has also set up a free telephone hotline for people living with HIV at the Antiretroviral Therapy Treatment Centre of Dakar. It has also set up a WhatsApp network for all antiretroviral therapy care site managers and gives them recommendations on how to adapt the provision of care for people living with HIV, including proceeding with the delivery of at least three months of HIV treatment.

What is the role of community-based organizations today?

Community-based organizations and networks have long been critical to the AIDS response because of their central role in raising awareness, informing, dispelling myths and misinformation and providing services to marginalized and vulnerable populations.

Now more than ever, community actors need to be supported to innovate and be recognized as providers of essential services for HIV and COVID-19.

Community service providers have innovated quickly in the context of COVID-19 in Senegal using appointment systems to prevent too many people being accommodated at the same time in an institution and holding educational sessions virtually.

The CNLS is currently providing logistical support to people living with HIV for the community-based distribution of antiretroviral medicines.

The right to information is a constitutional right in Senegal. What is the role of information in preventing and protecting against epidemics?

The CNLS very quickly developed messages, press releases and banners on social media to draw attention to the preventive steps to be taken against COVID-19, especially for people living with HIV. We also informed people living with HIV in real time regarding the evolving knowledge about HIV and COVID-19.

Information was developed to be expressed in simple terms and to prevent false/fake news that can undermine the use of health services, including vaccination services, that are useful to preserve the health of people, in particular children living with HIV.