Covid-19 brought many communities to a standstill. But while the disease affected people from all walks of life, it doubly affected people who live with the human immunodeficiency virus (PLHIV).

On March 16, 2020, the Philippine government placed the entire Luzon on enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), restricting people’s movement to control the spread of covid-19.

The lockdown did not only stop the PLHIV from going to school or reporting for work, it also barred them from access to lifesaving anti-retroviral medications.

Per the health department, at least 45,143 Filipinos living with HIV are on anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment. Taking ARV medications helps people who live with HIV stay as healthy as possible.

In the Bicol region: “The walls that keep covid-19 out locked us in”

Most local government units did their best to safeguard their people from covid-19, closing borders and suspending public transportation. This has affected thousands of Bicolanos.

Among them is alias Mosh, a person living with HIV in Camarines Sur.

“Maduwang oras byahe ko pasiring Naga sa hub, pero mayo man ako malulunadan. Ano man magibo ko na ma man sasakyan na naglockdown? (I am an almost two-hour drive away from the treatment hub, but what I can do if there is no means of transportation due to lockdown?),” he said.

His situation is the same as that of the similarly immunocompromised in towns distant from HIV treatment hubs that regularly dispense medications.

Alias Yaja, from Sorsogon, said, “iisip ko pa lang na di na ako makapahub, kikurulbaan na ako, paano na health ko… (just by thinking that I can no longer go the treatment hub, I’m very worried about my health).”

Responding to the call of the times

Support groups had to act in the face of gaps in responding to HIV.

One community organization, GentleMen Bicol for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (GM Bicol), volunteers from among students and young professionals campaigned on social media for help for the affected.

Coordinating with the region’s Department of Health, HIV treatment hubs, and local government health offices, the group linked people living with HIV to healthcare resources.

Volunteers responded to calls from all six Bicol provinces — Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Masbate, Catanduanes, and Sorsogon.

Richard Hayag, president of GM Bicol said the principle of “tarabangan,” which means helping one another motivated them.

“Our role as a group is to help PLHIVs get their ARV refills from refilling stations nearest them,” he said.

“We also find ways to help in terms of the clients’ transportation or of how the ARV medications can be delivered to the clients.”

Today, the group and their government and nongovernment partners continue to assist people living with HIV within and outside the Bicol region.

While Covid-19 threatens many around the globe, it has also made advocates reassess and rethink the Philippine health system and its HIV response.