World, Africa

Zimbabwe’s HIV positive teens cornered by coronavirus

Lockdowns making life harder for teens living with HIV as they struggle to get drugs, treatment

Jeffrey Moyo   | 12.07.2021
Zimbabwe’s HIV positive teens cornered by coronavirus FILE PHOTO

HARARE, Zimbabwe

In April last year, 19-year-old Trish Murongedzi, who was living with HIV, succumbed to COVID-19 at her home in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

Barely a week after she died, her friend – 20-year-old Evelyn Chonzi, who had lived with HIV since birth -- also lost her life to coronavirus.

Worse yet, Chonzi’s boyfriend, 20-year-old HIV positive Michael Chidara, also died from coronavirus-related complications less than two weeks later.

But many Zimbabwean teenagers like 17-year-old Pritchard Hove, who has also HIV since birth, have been lucky. The coronavirus nearly claimed his life last year at a time when COVID-19-related deaths had peaked.

“I was almost killed by COVID-19 last year, and I don’t even know how I contracted the disease. But I thank God I’m alive today, still going strong with HIV all the way,” Hove told Anadolu Agency.

The teen said he was hospitalized when he showed coronavirus-related symptoms and was lucky to recover from the deadly disease.

“I was placed on a life support system in hospital and had to be closely monitored by doctors and nurses, so I was told [about that] when I regained my consciousness three days after falling seriously ill,” he said.

The main source of concern for Hove was his HIV/AIDS condition, and pummeled by the coronavirus, he thought this was the end.

“I thought I was going to die; worse considering my being HIV positive. Yes, my immune system was deteriorated after I was hit by the coronavirus, and I was sure I faced a certain death.”

HIV treatment difficult amid COVID restrictions

For Murongedzi’s widowed mother, 48-year-old Agness Zinhu, also HIV positive, the erratic supply of antiretroviral drugs during the peak of coronavirus cases was to blame for her only daughter’s death.

“It was hard to constantly get supplies of antiretroviral drugs when the COVID-19 cases peaked last year. And that was also the time when travel restrictions were also on the up and that meant my daughter and I had difficulties, having to move to collect our share of treatment supplies,” said Zinhu.

As a result, her daughter defaulted on antiretroviral treatment before she became infected with the coronavirus, resulting in her illness and subsequent death in April last year.

Murongedzi’s friend met a similar fate barely a week later.

Evelyn’s father, Donemore Chonzi, pinned the blame on COVID-19 restrictions.

“My daughter ended up defaulting on antiretroviral treatment because she couldn’t travel to collect her drugs during the lockdown last year meant to curtail the spread of COVID-19,” Chonzi, 53, said.

Consequently, said Chonzi, his daughter died.

Chidara’s brother, Denis, said his sibling suffered the effects of the coronavirus together with his girlfriend before they both eventually died, failing to cope with the impact of the virus while battling HIV.

“Michael died of AIDS, but I can tell you COVID-19 killed him because he fell sick due to AIDS after restrictions meant to overcome the coronavirus barred him from collecting his drugs from our local clinic,” Denis told Anadolu Agency.

COVID-19 threatens lives of HIV-positive teens

Born with HIV, Trish, Evelyn and Michael had lived well into their teens before contracting the coronavirus, which eventually indirectly killed them.

As the coronavirus continues to grip Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS activists say teens here with HIV are living in fear, unsure of what will befall them amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Maybe health care centers responsible for distributing antiretroviral drugs will be shut down as coronavirus cases rise even among healthcare workers who are also responsible for dishing out treatment drugs to teens, in particular to those living with HIV,” said Pardon Gwangwava, a 22-year-old HIV positive university student in Harare.

Confusion over vaccination against coronavirus

For Zimbabwe’s HIV-positive teenagers, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus has become a new headache.

“Young people with HIV are affected by the coronavirus like many other citizens, but the main challenge is whether to get vaccinated or not. With new drugs being used to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, we do not know their effects on HIV-positive young people, which has created a psychological dilemma among them,” Chamunorwa Mashoko, who leads an advocacy platform known as the Advocacy Core Team in Zimbabwe, told Anadolu Agency.

In fact, Mashoko said, “the invasion of the coronavirus caused fear, anxiety and panic among people living with HIV. No one knew the coronavirus’ relationship with HIV.”

For many like Mashoko, lockdowns brought untold suffering as young people living with HIV were hindered from accessing medications, especially antiretroviral drugs.

Approximately 1.4 million Zimbabweans are living with HIV and AIDS, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Yet as many HIV-positive teenagers like Trish, Evelyn and Michael lose their lives in the face of coronavirus lockdowns. Over 66,000 coronavirus cases and more than 2,000 deaths have been reported in Zimbabwe since the disease broke out almost two years ago, according to the World Health Organization.

Public transport in Zimbabwe has also often faced bans during lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus, and this has meant tough times for many HIV-positive young Zimbabweans like 21-year-old Leonard Gumbo.

“It has become harder to live with HIV because there is completely no transport to use when anyone wants to collect drugs owing to rife lockdowns. Many people like myself have to travel to some distant healthcare centers before we access antiretroviral drugs,” he said.

But in July last year, as the coronavirus spread around the globe, UNAIDS launched a call center for people living with HIV in Zimbabwe in a bid to help HIV-positive people access treatment even amid lockdowns.

But not all Zimbabwean teens with HIV know about the call centers.

“I have not heard anything about such call centers,” said Hove who narrowly escaped death from the coronavirus.

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