CHIANG MAI: The Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) organised a regional capacity building training on HIV and AIDS advocacy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic under the theme ‘Providing Care and Support’.
The consultation was held from 15 to 17 June 2021, and was attended by forty registered participants from ten Asian countries. The facilitators of the consultation included representatives from UNAIDS, faith-based organisations, and civil society organisations dealing with HIV and AIDS advocacy.
The three-day training, which was conducted virtually, was part of the CCA’s ongoing programme, Action Together in Combatting HIV and AIDS in Asia (ATCHAA).
The CCA’s training programme was facilitated at a time when the impact of COVID-19 on key populations (KPs) has not yet been properly quantified. As key populations were at an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19, there was a more urgent need to effectively respond to the challenges they faced.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, General Secretary of the CCA, in his opening remarks stated that COVID-19 continues to threaten the gains made in the HIV response and it has brought inequalities to the forefront. However, as we have seen from the solidarity, support and power of communities in dealing with the HIV epidemic, we should also be hopeful in communities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic; the response must not be one of fear and stigma.
The CCA General Secretary further stated that the CCA has been journeying for almost 30 years in addressing concerns of HIV and AIDS in Asia, and that the CCA’s ATCHAA programme was initiated five years ago to empower and enable churches to better respond to the HIV and AIDS crisis in a more systematic way.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara affirmed that the CCA would continue its efforts in building HIV-competent churches and communities; we need to build a culture of solidarity, trust, and kindness as we journey towards responding to the AIDS epidemic in Asia.
Dr Ye Yu Shwe, the Regional Advisor for Epidemiology and Response Monitoring of UNAIDS Asia-Pacific Regional Office addressed the impact of COVID-19 on HIV.
Dr Shwe mentioned that Asia and the Pacific was seeing a rise in new infections in many countries in Asia and the numbers were increasing with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that the pandemic had exacerbated existing inequalities, generated new complexities, and created additional setbacks. This had pushed the AIDS response, especially access to medicines, treatments, and diagnostics, further off track, thus widening fault lines within a deeply unequal world and exposing the dangers of under-investment in public health, health systems, and other essential public services for all.
The session on ‘Stigma, Shame, Denial, Discrimination, Inaction, and Mis-action (SSDDIM)’ was led by Mr Wangda Dorji, executive Director of Lhak-Sam (Bhutan Network of Positives).
Mr Dorji, a grassroots community leader, highlighted various factors leading to SSDDIM including scientific, legal, and policy procedures, religion and culture, social factors, government responses, and involvements of partners and donors. Each of these had contributed towards an unfavourable environment, and thus there was a greater need to effectively address each aspect.
The needs highlighted included providing universal health coverage, changing the punitive laws and legal barriers, contextual interpretations of religious texts, developing a human rights approach in addressing HIV and AIDS, and enhancing advocacy initiatives towards a stigma-free society.
Rev. Tony Franklin-Ross, Acting Director, Methodist Church in New Zealand and Chairperson of Ecumenical Relations, World Methodist Council, in his theological reflection on ‘Creating and Enabling a Congenial Environment for People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLHIV)’ said that it was important to be cognisant of the personal, political, relational, and spiritual experiences of PLHIV, their families, friends, and allies.
Rev. Franklin-Ross further encouraged the participants to articulate hermeneutics in a manner as to develop an authentic understanding of religion and Christian tradition and theology by learning from the embodied experiences of trauma, exclusion, grace, and love.
The workshop on SAVE tool (Safer practices, Access to treatment, Voluntary counselling and testing, Empowerment) for addressing HIV and AIDS for religious leaders was led by Rev. Carleen Nomorosa, the HIV Programme Coordinator, Ecumenical Education and Nurture of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.
The tool provided a newer and more relevant approach to dialogue with religious leaders in addressing stigma and discrimination directed towards PLHIV. Rev. Nomorosa also provided innovative approaches for addressing prevention, treatment, and education for communities on the topic of HIV and AIDS. The session was interactive and the participants also shared their experiences and lessons learned in their ongoing work.
The PLHIV community experiences and perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic was shared by Loon Gangte, Founder and President of Delhi Network of Positives, India, and the Regional Coordinator for International Treatment Preparedness Coalition.
Mr Gangte emphasised that continual and uninterrupted treatment was crucial for PLHIV to ensure that their viral load remained undetectable. This would in turn lead to non-transmissible HIV. He pushed for advocating for the sustained supplies of the life-long medication for PLHIV. The challenges of lockdown and hindered access to antiretroviral drugs were focused upon as matters of concern for the PLHIV community.
The participants were encouraged to form regional groups to discuss the challenges in their own context. The assessment tool aimed at enhancing inclusiveness, developed by CCA, was discussed in groups. The participants also made action plans for sub-regional follow-up programmes.
The training emphasised the need to recognise the resilience and innovation demonstrated by communities during the COVID-19 pandemic in reaching affected people with safe, affordable, and effective services, including COVID-19 testing and vaccination, HIV prevention, testing and treatment and other health and social services.
It also highlighted the need to use differentiated service delivery models for testing and treatment, including digital, community-led, and community-based services that overcome challenges such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver treatment and related support services to the people in greatest need, wherever they are.