The Impact of Climate Change and Conflict on Global HIV Services

By Rachel Mason.

The International Community of Women Living with HIV recently held a panel discussion focused on how women HIV activists around the world have been combatting disruptions from COVID-19, conflict and climate change. They also shared their reflections on what the future of women-led disaster response should look like.

Carmen Logie, a professor at the University of Toronto, started off the discussion with a brief analysis on the impact of climate change, particularly on people living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, 363 million people were impacted by droughts from 1980 to 2014, she said, just one form of extreme weather caused by climate change. Conversely, many people living with HIV reside in areas of high-risk precipitation, which has a direct impact on food, water, and sanitation security, as well as causing increased migration, Logie said. These concerns were echoed by Joy Oboyi, a climate change activist based in Nigeria, who shared on the ground experiences of increased incidence of malnutrition, limit to health and HIV services and gender-based violence in the face of climate emergencies and COVID-19.

The panel then discussed how their respective countries are addressing not only climate change-driven disruptions to HIV services, but also lessons learned during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sita Shahi, a regional coordinator at the International Community of Women Living with HIV based in Nepal, spoke on the work that her team has done to address the needs of women living with HIV, including developing channels for them to continue to receive antiretroviral medication through “unideal quarantine conditions” as well as during previous earthquakes that upended life in Nepal. Charity Mkona, a ICW global chairperson based in Malawi, emphasized that through both COVID-19 and flooding in Malawi, responding to emergencies became difficult because, “focus had become divided, especially on issues such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, because all the concentration shifted to COVID-19.”

Regardless of these disruptions, Mkona highlighted that the most important lesson for her team in Malawi was resilience in the face of difficult situations. She said they were able to achieve success through previously established frameworks for emergencies that included creating settlements for displaced people living with HIV and providing access to psychosocial services and medication.

In addition to displacement caused by climate emergencies, Olena Stryzhak, head of Positive Women Ukraine and a founder of Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS, covered the approach to continuing HIV services and support in the face of the conflict in Ukraine. She shared the powerful work that the network has done in Ukraine to connect people leaving the country with safe, reliable access to medication as well as psychosocial support. Currently, she said, the network is still in touch with all 24 regions of Ukraine, including regions that are under Russian occupation. 

Resoundingly, the women of the panel emphasized the need not only for increased funding for women-led disaster preparedness, but also for increased involvement of women at all levels of decision-making and policy implementation. This may require increased training for grassroots women and girl activists, especially in the case of climate change.

As the conversation wrapped up, Logie posed a final question to the panel: “What do climate resilient HIV services look like, and how do we make sure they are community based and gender transformative?” The work that the panelists have done on a country and regional level can provide a template for global women-led disaster relief, but all panelists emphasized a desire for further work and a continued conversation on the future of disaster-preparedness.

Rachel Mason is an intern at Friends of the Global Fight.