The number of positive Covid-19 cases continues to rise in SA.Picture: 123RF / BENTONSTUDIO
The number of positive Covid-19 cases continues to rise in SA.Picture: 123RF / BENTONSTUDIO

The Covid-19 outbreak is placing unprecedented strain on sophisticated health systems in Europe and Asia, with overstretched medical staff struggling to treat their patients and intensive-care facilities overwhelmed in rich countries. Imagine then what will happen to health systems in Africa as the virus takes hold here.

The crisis is exposing glaring inequalities between the rich and the poor in the developed world, and it is about to reflect even greater inequalities between the North and the South. We need to act.

The lack of investment in Africa’s social infrastructure, including its health systems, mounting debt and huge corporate tax dodging have left the continent ill-prepared to face this emergency. Without publicly provided health care, people are exposed to disease.

User fees for accessing health services deny ordinary people their right to health. This is the time to abolish them. Rich countries are rightly pumping billions into their own economies and social security systems to keep people and businesses afloat, but will there be huge co-ordinated international financial support for developing countries to fight Covid-19? We are in this together or no-one is safe. Nothing but a global response will defeat this aggressive virus.

I am also concerned about what Covid-19 might mean for people  with HIV/Aids. Two out of three people living with HIV globally reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Millions are still unaware of their status and not on treatment. We know older people and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, including those living with HIV, are at higher risk. It is therefore essential that people with HIV/Aids follow the same guidance for avoiding the virus as the general population. In addition, it has never been more important to test people for HIV and get them onto antiretrovirals.

For people living with HIV/Aids who are already on treatment governments must move to the recommended guidelines of the World Health Organisation for multimonth dispensing of medication. This will help alleviate the burden on health facilities when Covid-19 arrives, and allow people to maintain their treatment regimens uninterrupted without having to risk increased exposure to the virus to collect their medicines. And we must make sure vulnerable groups of people living with or affected by HIV/Aids are not forgotten in the rush to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

During this serious and difficult situation, UNAids is working closely with networks of people living with HIV throughout the world to ensure that their concerns are heard and they can bring solutions to the table. We will continue to do so throughout this crisis.

The response to Covid-19 in Africa and throughout the world must be grounded in human rights. There have already been incidents all over the world where individuals or communities are being blamed for the virus. This must stop. It’s wrong and counterproductive for the wider public good. Let us learn the lessons of the HIV/Aids response and know that stigma and discrimination will hold us back in getting to grips with this pandemic.

In responding to the HIV/Aids epidemic community-led services have been core to our most important advances in preventing new infections and getting people on treatment. In the response to Covid-19 communities will no doubt step into the breach and public health authorities must engage with them now and build trust for the upcoming battle. We will not win without communities. It is communities that will design and implement their own context-specific prevention measures, in markets, in buses, at funerals.

As we have seen in the HIV/Aids response, it will most often be women who will lead the charge in terms of caring for the sick and making sure their children and communities are as safe as possible. We must ensure that resources flow to them so that they can carry on their important work and that they are fairly compensated and their families financially secure.

I wish we were in a different place. That everyone had the right to health and that we were in a stronger position to face this new challenge. That debate will continue and my voice will stay strong. For now, we must do the best we can for our communities. Let us help and support each other during this time — we are all in this together and we will beat this virus through solidarity, compassion and kindness.

• Byanyima is UNAids executive director.