Feature story

United Nations agencies coordinate their COVID-19 response in South Africa

12 May 2020

United Nations entities in South Africa, including UNAIDS, are working closely together to support government and community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Nations in South Africa has jointly engaged with civil society, the private sector and key affected communities, including people living with HIV and tuberculosis, to rapidly respond to the impact of a national lockdown that commenced on 26 March.

Using the World Health Organization eight-pillar approach, the United Nations in South Africa has developed a multisectoral plan centred on the immediate health and other needs of people, including access to medicines, HIV prevention and testing services, food security, education, social protection and community resilience.

On 30 April, the United Nations in South Africa launched an emergency flash appeal for US$ 136 million to support close to 10 million people in need. The appeal will help fund the civil society response and ensure that the needs of key populations and vulnerable communities are met in the response to COVID-19, including continued health support to people living with HIV, migrants and refugees, women and children affected by violence and communities facing shortages of food and other essentials.

UNAIDS has worked with partners to coordinate the United Nations in South Africa plan, providing support to strategic information, community engagement and communication. Funds already available to the United Nations Joint Team on HIV/AIDS are being reprogrammed to ensure that civil society, people living with HIV, key populations and vulnerable communities continue to be supported in the AIDS response while also addressing new challenges from COVID-19.

United Nations staff, including UNAIDS staff based in provinces with a high HIV burden, are working in the national and provincial COVID-19 command centres and supporting community health workers actively engaged in screening, contact tracing and voluntary testing. South Africa has massively scaled up screening for COVID-19.


Supporting community innovation

The United Nations has actively engaged with civil society organizations through sector networks, some of which have been established to coordinate responses to the pandemic, such as the C19 People’s Coalition and the COVID-19 Front, and long-standing networks, including the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) Civil Society Forum and the National Economic Development Council Community Constituency. Their plans include a strong emphasis on advocacy, communication and social mobilization around issues such as medical care, shortages of food and fresh water, crowded housing conditions, homelessness and loss of income. The United Nations Country Team is providing technical support to civil society and resource mobilization through its emergency flash appeal.

UNAIDS has also supported organizations representing people living with HIV to survey and document the needs and challenges of people living with HIV in accessing essential health and social services, antiretroviral therapy and safety and hygiene services committed by the government. The survey results will inform a dialogue led by people living with HIV to find joint solutions.


Working with the government and other partners

Under the leadership of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in South Africa, Nardos Bekele-Thomas, the United Nations in South Africa is fully supporting the all-government, all-society COVID-19 response led by the National Command Council, chaired by the President, with a cutting-edge Ministerial Advisory Council that provides the science and evidence for decision-making.

The United Nations has jointly consulted the government, including the Department of Health and the Department of Social Development, to explore response needs, including support to the National Solidary Fund set up by the President for resource mobilization. The United Nations also briefed the diplomatic corps, the business sector, private foundations and philanthropies on how the United Nations is responding to support the government, civil society and communities. Consultations were also held with the World Bank, which is currently developing a post COVID-19 strategy and possible support to the national response.

The UNAIDS Country Director for South Africa, Mbulawa Mugabe, emphasized the importance of using lessons from the AIDS epidemic to put people at the centre of the COVID-19 response and encourage communities to identify issues and develop solutions. “We need to make sure that we act with purpose and speed,” he said. “Communities have mobilized themselves and are determined that people who need services have access to them. We remain concerned that COVID-19 may impact differently on the 5 million people in South Africa who are living with HIV and on treatment and the 2.5 million people who are not currently receiving antiretroviral therapy. It is important to protect the progress in the AIDS response to date and continue achieving the HIV prevention and treatment targets for 2020.”

The Joint Team on HIV/AIDS in South Africa is working with the Department of Health, primary recipients of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in an effort to safeguard access to HIV services and promote multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral therapy.

UNAIDS is working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Department of Social Development, SANAC and other partners to address disruptions for homeless people, including those who use drugs, so they can access essential services, including antiretroviral therapy, replacement needles and syringes and methadone, even after they were relocated to emergency shelters. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right is monitoring the impact of the lockdown regulations and enforcement procedures on marginalized people and key populations and is advocating to end stigma and prevent punitive measures. The social protection cluster in the United Nations team is working with government and civil society to address humanitarian challenges.

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS are working with the Department of Health and SANAC to develop communication materials directed at communities, including podcasts to be made available through WhatsApp and community radio stations.