Zimbabwe’s HIV positive teens cornered by coronavirus

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 the 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 had 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 hospitalised 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 consciousness three days after falling seriously ill,” he said.

The main source of concern for Hove was his HIV/Aids condition, and pummelled by the coronavirus, he thought the end was nigh.

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

HIV treatment difficult amid COVID restrictions

For, 48-year-old Agness Zinhu Murongedzi’s widowed mother, 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 in place and that meant my daughter and I had difficulty having to travel to collect our share of treatment supplies,” Zinhu said.

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

Zinhu’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 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 wreak havoc in  Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids activists say teens with HIV are living in fear, unsure of what will befall them amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Maybe healthcare centres responsible for distributing antiretroviral drugs will be closed 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 the  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 medication, 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 many HIV-positive teenagers like Trish, Evelyn and Michael lose their lives in the face of coronavirus-induced 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 Organisation. Public transport in Zimbabwe has also often been banned 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 one wants to collect drugs owing to lockdowns. Many people like myself have to travel to some distant healthcare centres to access antiretroviral drugs,” he said.

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

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

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

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