JOHANNESBURG - Coronavirus lockdowns have hindered the fight against HIV infection in women and girls globally by limiting their access to education and protection from sexual violence, the United Nations warned on Monday.
Governments' focus on tackling the pandemic has also shifted attention and resources away from protecting vulnerable populations from HIV, according to a study by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).
"This pandemic thrives on inequalities and COVID-19 is threatening to throw us off course," said Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS, in a press briefing.
"Lockdowns have brought a higher risk of violence against girls. Millions are out of school today. Women in the informal sector have had their income taken away," Byanyima said.
The United Nations had earlier warned of a surge in domestic violence under lockdowns, with calls to helplines doubling or tripling in some countries, as lockdowns trapped many women indoors with their abusers.
UNAIDS highlighted the risk of domestic violence and HIV infection for women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, who already accounted for 59 percent of new HIV infections in the region in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to nationwide lockdowns, progress was seen through individual programs helping women in sub-Saharan Africa fight HIV infection.
That progress will be hindered as medical supplies become more difficult to access. UNAIDS predicted this could cause half a million AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2021.
"Everything has focused on COVID-19 as if the HIV pandemic is finished," said Gracia Violeta Ross, founder of the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.
"Those of us who survived HIV and fought for life and access to treatment and care cannot afford losing the gains that took so much effort to win," said Ross.
UNAIDS urged countries to increase investment in both HIV and COVID-19, citing the Ebola outbreak in western Africa as an example of what could go wrong.
It is estimated that disrupted healthcare services that were redirected to fighting Ebola caused 10,600 deaths from malaria, AIDS-related illness and tuberculosis.
"We must not forget the HIV/AIDS response," Eswatini Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini said in the briefing. "We must ensure that no one is left behind."