Some Jamaicans have responded to the COVID-19 outbreak in extreme ways. Family members of one of the first confirmed cases received death threats, and nurses have reported being barred from public transport. Some people have given the health authorities wrong addresses to avoid the stigma that a home visit would attract.
UNAIDS Jamaica and civil society organizations serving people living with HIV have joined the national discourse to share a key lesson learned from HIV: that stigma and discrimination are barriers to an effective response.
Two-thirds of Jamaicans would not purchase vegetables from someone they knew to be living with HIV, according to the 2017 Knowledge Attitude and Behaviour Study. The effect of such widespread prejudice is seen in the island’s treatment outcomes. According to government estimates, while an estimated 84% of people living with HIV were aware of their status in 2018, less than half (47%) were on treatment
For Jumoke Patrick, Executive Director of the Jamaica Network of Seropositives, there are clear parallels between people’s reactions to the novel coronavirus and HIV.
“People living with HIV feel they need to stay away from people and from accessing services. They feel they need to reduce and limit their lives because of how people treat them. We have some of the same treatment meted out to people positive with, or suspected of having, coronavirus. When there’s fear we respond in a defensive way,” Mr Patrick explained in a webinar hosted by UNAIDS Jamaica.
Community organizations have reported that some COVID-19 stigma has even been directed to people living with HIV. UNAIDS Jamaica has been working to raise awareness among policymakers and through the news media about the importance of building trust with affected people while combatting stigma and discrimination among the wider population.
“Just as with HIV, success in combatting COVID-19 absolutely depends on people’s willingness to get tested and access care. Verbal abuse, violence and intimidation will only chase people away from services,” said Manoela Manova, UNAIDS Country Director for Jamaica.
The Jamaica Ministry of Health has launched an antidiscrimination campaign that includes stories of harassed COVID-19 patients in virtual press conferences.
“None of us are immune to the virus,” Christopher Tufton, the Jamaican Minister of Health, said at a recent press conference. “None of us must claim or think that we will exclusively escape and it is somebody else’s fault. We must treat each other in a way that almost assumes that tomorrow we are going to need the support from those who are so infected and impacted today. We really need to cut the hate and work together as a country and as communities, to overcome.”