Feature story

Pia Wurtzbach on how she is helping the response to COVID-19

27 May 2020

Pia Wurtzbach, Miss Universe 2015 and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for Asia and the Pacific, has long been an advocate for the AIDS response in the Philippines and the rest of the region. Recently, however, her work has taken in support for the COVID-19 response, including starting a fundraising effort with the aim of distributing 25 000 face masks to hospitals in Manila and supporting social media campaigns on preventing both COVID-19 and HIV.

UNAIDS spoke to Ms Wurtzbach about her work during this challenging time.

How did you organize the drive to donate face masks to health facilities in Manila?

To begin with, I ordered 5000 masks with my own money to identify an affordable and reputable supplier. I found one and ordered the masks and then delivered them to four hospitals. Once I was ready and confident, I started the fundraising drive, reaching out to the private sector in the Philippines and my network of contacts. So far, I have been able to donate masks to 30 hospitals in Metro Manila. We wanted to deliver masks to other hospitals outside the capital city, but because of the lockdown this hasn’t been possible yet. In addition, I have been able to donate meals to an intensive care unit in one of the hospitals in Metro Manila. Nurses and doctors working in the unit have been living in the hospital and do not go home. With the donations, I feel I am supporting them.

How do you continue to support the response to HIV in your role as a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador?

Every day I am in contact with LoveYourself, the civil society organization I volunteer for in the Philippines, to update each other on what is going on and to monitor the needs of people living with HIV. I post information on my social media platforms about HIV and COVID-19 prevention and how to stay healthy. I keep my followers informed of the services provided by LoveYourself to support people living with HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as home delivery of antiretroviral medicines.

What questions do you receive from people living with HIV or from key populations in relation to HIV and COVID-19?

The most popular questions are how to access medicines and whether there are going to be enough refills. It is great that organizations like LoveYourself in the Philippines help people living with HIV to access their medicines. I am really impressed with Vinn (Ronivin Garcia Pagtakhan), the founder of LoveYourself, because he has been using his own car driving around everywhere delivering medicines to people’s homes. He is like a modern-day superhero.

How have you kept motivated to continue your work in these trying times?

I am so blessed because I have a lot of friends in the industry who are nurses too. You will be surprised that my makeup artist is a registered nurse, and there are photographers who are registered nurses. In the Philippines, there are so many nurses that somehow end up doing other careers, but they are all still in the medical field and they know people in the medical field. I hear so many stories from them, and I know these are real stories about what the hospitals are like and about their environment.

Hearing their stories made me feel like I needed to do something. I feel very fortunate that I am able to stay at home. So, I thought to myself, what can I do to make myself useful? This is why I started my donation drive. The medical staff sent me messages of appreciation and even a video of them saying thank you. When I see that the people on the frontline take the time to say thank you, I want to help even more.

The fundraising campaign gave me a sense of mission and purpose. That is what I tell people. If you are at home and you have followers on Instagram, or maybe you are an influencer or a celebrity, or maybe you are just popular in school, use it! Now is the time! We cannot just sit and wait for this to be over. The solution has to come from us.

What do you miss most from your life before the COVID-19 pandemic?

I feel like I took the little things for granted. I took for granted the little commute going to work, I took for granted the travelling, I took for granted how busy I was with my work. I remember before the lockdown I got burnout because I was doing so much work. I was not getting any free days or any weekends—I was working from Monday to Sunday. And I said to myself that I needed some time alone. And then suddenly this all happened. I am just taking the time now to reflect and think about what is really important to me.

I miss everything. I miss being able to walk outside, I miss the traffic, I miss seeing other people. I feel that the lockdown is really giving us time to think about what is important for us. I feel like when we get out of the quarantine and self-isolation, we will know what to prioritize.

How do you spend your leisure now being at home in quarantine?

You know, the good thing about the lockdown is that I have more time for myself. Every day I go to the roof deck of my building to work out, so I bring my yoga mat up there and spend a few hours trying to get some sunlight and exercise. I have a routine every day, and I feel like if you have a little routine, you will feel like your days have direction. When I wake up in the morning, I try to get emails done and some work done. In the afternoon, I will work out. And at night I can bake, or watch television, watch Netflix. So, it is work, sunlight and then “me time”. I feel like this is a nice balance, because it is making yourself productive and taking care of yourself.

What are your next steps after you reach the target of donating 25 000 masks?

It is not set in stone, but my team and I are thinking of ways to help people who need economic support and donate them food. In addition, I would like to focus on social media messages on mental health to give people tips on how to control or manage their anxiety. People are at home and on their phones, so maybe they can read something that will help them manage their stress.