A data-loving public that wears masks: 'much to learn' from Covid-19 for HIV and TB

04 August 2020 - 15:10 By Tanya Farber
The Covid-19 pandemic has destigmatised the wearing of masks, and this can help SA fight TB and HIV.
The Covid-19 pandemic has destigmatised the wearing of masks, and this can help SA fight TB and HIV.
Image: Supplied/House of Eboka

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused major disruptions in HIV and TB services in the country, something positive has emerged from the Covid-19 response that we can take forward in our battle against these other major diseases.

The mainstreaming of masks and public interest in health data are two of the big lessons.

That is according to Dr Zameer Brey, who was speaking on Tuesday morning at a webinar hosted by the SA National Aids Council (Sanac). Brey heads the TB programme in SA for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“There is a concern about how Covid-19 has hit SA, but we must also pause and look at the number of innovations and then think in terms of HIV and tuberculosis,” he said.

First, he said, health-related decision-making “has been a lot more agile than it usually is”.

The compressed time frame of Covid-19 has ensured decisions are made under pressure instead of lagging.

Second, South African society has become used to changes that could stand it in good stead as the country tackles HIV and TB.

One example is masks, said Brey.

“In terms of TB, for a long time we struggled with the acceptance of masks. People were stigmatised for wearing them. Now, with Covid-19, we are in a space where there is stigma for not wearing a mask, and that is a big shift. We should grab that concept and nurture it.”

In addition, “some of the patient-centric innovations that have sprouted in the Covid-19 era” should be used as a springboard.

Brey said: “This patient-centric approach came into the mainframe with Covid-19 because we saw we could no longer rely on the system to pull in patients.”

Instead, innovation ensued and saw services and care being delivered to people where they are instead of them having to travel to facilities.

“This could open up the space for these models to perpetuate long after Covid-19 has left us,” Brey said, adding that “delivering services at scale and in a fast-paced manner” has also resulted from the regulations being more agile in the face of the pandemic.

Another game-changer from Covid-19 that could be useful in the fights against HIV and TB is that of the public response.

“For many diseases, it has been the health system that owned the response. With Covid-19, the public has owned the response in a way we have not seen before. They are consuming data and discussing epidemiological concepts that were once only discussed in the dark corners of universities. The consumption of data in mainstream media is an opportunity,” he said.

Another positive is something  health providers only “dreamed about for a long time”, and that is a multisectoral response.

Brey said, for example, government transport, infrastructure and development departments have worked together in new ways during the pandemic, and this could be a learning curve for tackling other health crises.

He said the Covid-19 crisis showed the crucial role of community health-care workers in the retention of services, and this is “an opportunity we can build on” in the fights against HIV and TB.

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