Feature story

“We are in this together”: Uganda Young Positives respond to COVID-19

25 May 2020

Kuraish Mubiru wakes up at dawn every day to get refills of antiretroviral therapy from different health facilities before making deliveries to his peers and other members of the community living with HIV. This has been his routine for the past seven weeks.

Mr Mubiru is the Executive Director of Uganda Young Positives (UYP), a community-based organization that brings together young people living with HIV, mainly from the informal sector. With more than 50 000 registered members, UYP focuses on scaling up HIV prevention, care and support services for its members.

When Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, first addressed the nation on 18 March on the global COVID-19 pandemic, among the measures put in place were restrictions on mass gatherings, the closure of most businesses and the cessation of public transport. Since then, people living with HIV and tuberculosis have found it difficult to access their routine medical care or essential medicine refills.

Following the measures, Mr Mubiru started receiving calls from young people whose livelihoods and HIV treatment were dependent on facilities that had been closed. The impact of the restrictions was beginning to be felt. Young people were no longer able to move to their respective health facilities to access care and treatment nor afford a meal.

Although there have been efforts by health centres and civil society organizations to transport antiretroviral medicines closer to the people, a good number, as reported by the community support groups and health centres, have not received their antiretroviral medicines owing to fear of stigma and discrimination by the community and family members.

“This was a trying time for the community and a huge test of our resilience because our peers needed us more than ever,” said Mr Mubiru. “We had to come out of our comfort zone, act and think fast not to lose all our gains in the national HIV response in the wake of COVID-19.”

Mr Mubiru volunteered to support his fellow peers to access HIV treatment using his own car. In the beginning, he used his own resources to fuel his car and purchase food, but he soon ran out of money.

Initially, one of his biggest challenges was being able to fuel his car to continue with the daily refills, but the further tightening of restrictions on private transport meant that Mr Mubiru could not continue with deliveries. Through the support of UNAIDS, the Infectious Disease Institute and the Ministry of Health, he obtained a permit granting him permission to enable him to continue supporting his community.

During one of his routine deliveries, Mr Mubiru’s car was impounded by the police for more than four hours and he was made to wait. It took the involvement of the police leadership to have the car and Mr Mubiru released. On many occasions, he has been stopped by the police, demanding to know where he is going—those delays at times force him to get home past the curfew time of 19:00.

Mr Mubiru’s resolve to support his community is unwavering. He knows that not everybody would be comfortable visiting the nearest health facility for their antiretroviral refills, disclosing the reason to the local authorities for them to be granted movement or have a community organization’s branded car parked outside their home.

“Instances like these propel me to get out of bed every morning. We are still in this together. COVID-19 will end, and life will continue,” he says.

On average, he delivers eight antiretroviral refills per day to his peers. Besides the long distances and hard-to-reach places he has to go to, food is one of the biggest challenges, since hunger compromises people’s adherence to their medication. Stigma and non-disclosure also pose a great challenge for people to access HIV treatment from a nearby facility.

“The COVID-19 outbreak is having a major impact on people living with HIV,” said Karusa Kiragu, UNAIDS Country Director for Uganda. “We must ensure that adherence to HIV treatment is not compromised. This can be achieved through multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral therapy, supported by a strong community-led response,” she said.