Kyrgyz Indigo implements several projects on advocacy, human rights and empowerment of the LGBT community in Kyrgyzstan. Under the UNDP / Global Fund project, the organization helps prevent HIV among key population groups, including men who have sex with other men. Regardless of the difficulties engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the team continues to provide information and service packages and does all it can to keep testing accessible for its clients.
Ikram shows us around a newly inaugurated community center in their office. In between artworks, a sign made of strings reads: “Queering the World”. On the other side, a rainbow-colored flag decorates a shelf filled with useful brochures and documentation. In this building, everyone is welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation and social status. Even the toilets are labeled “non-gendered”. It’s a place where the LGBT community can gather, receive education and support, relax, and forget about the oppressive homophobia and transphobia that is common in the country. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, the office of this organization, “Kyrgyz Indigo”, is emptier than usual.
“All the focus is on Covid-19”
“It’s as if people stopped thinking about HIV,” says Ikram, who is an outreach worker at “Kyrgyz Indigo”. His work consists in finding clients, briefing them about the NGO’s work, educating them about HIV and safe behavior, distributing service packages (which include condoms, lubricants and other protective items) and encouraging them to get regularly tested for HIV. “It was easier before the pandemic. People would reach out themselves; now our clients are less interested and some have disappeared.” Ikram explains that many of his clients left Bishkek to go back to their home in villages or abroad due to the financial crisis. “Those who live with their families now stopped answering; some even changed their numbers so their families wouldn’t see our calls. They suffer from stigma and discrimination from their families and can’t continue beneficiating from our services.”
Some members of the LGBT community were rejected from their families due to stigma; to protect those in difficult life situations, “Kyrgyz Indigo” opened additional shelters during the Covid-19 pandemic where they can benefit from free housing, meals, showers, laundry and consultations.
Belek, HIV consultant for “Kyrgyz Indigo”, used to test up to 40 people every week for HIV. Now these numbers are significantly down. “Since March, there has been a significant decrease in HIV testing. Under the emergency state, people stopped coming to our office to get tested all together. It was too difficult with transportation. But even now, the numbers are down: people react less to our messages and many have left Bishkek. All of the focus is on Covid-19 now.”
Minimizing the effects of the pandemic
Under the UNDP’s “Effective HIV and TB Control in the Kyrgyz Republic” project, funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and HIV, “Kyrgyz Indigo” provides free and anonymous express testing for their clients on a regular basis. Detecting HIV at an early stage allows to prevent its transmission and control the virus before a person becomes seriously ill.
To minimize the effects of Covid-19 on HIV prevention, “Kyrgyz Indigo” with the UNDP started using mobile brigades in September to test and inform clients at their home. To protect their clients from Covid-19, the team also switched to online consultations and does their best to respect preventive sanitary measures. “We used to distribute service packages for one week, now we give them for up to one month in advance,” says Ikram. Sometimes, he leaves the package in a public place and watches at a distance how the client picks it up to avoid all contact. “During the emergency state, we also exchanged clients with my colleagues so we would care for people in our neighborhood and be able to continue working with them regardless of roadblocks and the lack of public transportation. This system saved us,” says Ikram with a smile on his face.
“Covid-19 forced us to rethink our work and build from scratch a new system,” comments Amir, project coordinator for the NGO. “Of course there were a lot of difficulties. We always worked offline before and it was hard to reduce contact with our clients. A lot of our clients and even our staff experienced stress, fear, and psychological distress. But I think we reacted on time and effectively.”
In March, the team conducted an online survey among clients to know what difficulties they faced due to the pandemic and what where their needs, then adapted all of the project’s activities accordingly. “It’s important that our services are uninterrupted,” adds Amir. “If our clients, for example, don’t have condoms, it increases the risk of unsafe behavior and of HIV transmission. And people with HIV have a weakened immune system so are more vulnerable to Covid-19 too.”
A risk of increase in HIV infections
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Farkhad works as a Covid-19 Coordinator within “Kyrgyz Indigo”. He says that around 4,000 people have already benefited from their new services linked with Covid-19: food distribution, psychological consultations, material aid, shelters, delivery of ART medication at home, hormonal medication for transgender people... “I want to highlight our team's dedication,” says Farkhad. “We were all ourselves touched by the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences, but everyone put aside their own problems to continue helping others.” Recently, the UNDP / Global Fund project has launched online trainings for online-consultants on Covid-19 and online consultations of clients.
The “Kyrgyz Indigo” team is waiting for its clients open arms and continues to inform them about HIV on a daily basis, “so that they don’t completely forget about HIV because of Covid-19,” says Ikram. “The best we can do now is to continue advocating and educating people about HIV. I’m sure that if the media spoke about HIV as much as they do about Covid-19, we would see grand results within a few years.” But at the moment, Ikram and his colleagues are genuinely worried about the impact of Covid-19 on the HIV epidemic: “It’s a very sad situation. I’m scared that next year we will see an important increase in people with HIV.”
The UNDP and its partners are stepping up efforts to continue HIV prevention regardless of the new pandemic and health focus.