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For Russia's HIV-Positive Population, The Coronavirus Crisis Is Making Things Much Worse

HIV/AIDS activists in Russia say their funding has dried up as the country turns its attention to COVID-19.
HIV/AIDS activists in Russia say their funding has dried up as the country turns its attention to COVID-19.

MOSCOW -- Just because Russia is struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic does not mean that anyone has canceled the country's other epidemics, HIV-AIDS activists are warning.

"HIV infection hasn't gone away," says Marina Nikolayeva, a nonmedical consultant with SPID.Tsentr (AIDS.Center), a nongovernmental organization that provides assistance to those infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and raises awareness about related issues. "All the things that are happening now have done nothing to reduce the number of people who need our help."

If anything, the exact opposite is true.

According to official data from December 2019, just over 1 million people in Russia are HIV-positive. Activists, however, say the real figure is probably more like 1.5 million.

In 2019, a record 37,000 people died of AIDS in Russia.

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"There is plenty for us to do," Nikolayeva says. "There are materials for us to translate and information that we need to get out. But to do this, we need resources."

Earlier this month, SPID.Tsentr issued a public appeal for donations, saying that its programs and even its existence were under threat as the country devotes all its attention and resources to coping with the global coronavirus pandemic.

"Our problems with financing started when major sponsors informed us that they didn’t want to discuss funding issues until after the quarantine is over," SPID.Tsentr Director Sergei Abdurakhmanov says. "Because of that, our previous stable system of financing was broken."

On Hold

The SPID.Tsentr hotline continues to work, but its program for training young medical specialists has been put on hold. During the summer, the NGO started a program of free testing for HIV and hepatitis C in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod.

"For the most part, it is used by people who feel they have nowhere to get help or who are afraid of prejudices against them," Abdurakhmanov says. "Migrants, former prisoners, homosexuals, or transgender people."

That program was recently suspended because of the anti-coronavirus measures taken in the host cities.

Because of the lack of funding, Abdurakhmanov fears SPID.Tsentr will have to lay off the specialists it has trained to give the tests and the counseling that accompanies them.

"People could be deprived of qualified consultations and information," he says. "We will survive one way or another but we could be forced to significantly cut salaries or lay off specialists that we really want to keep -- people who have considerable experience, many of whom we trained ourselves."

The position of SPID.Tsentr was already complicated by the decision of its management not to accept any foreign funding for fear of being designated a "foreign agent" under a controversial 2012 law. Recently, journalist Yury Dud won a foreign prize for his AIDS film, HIV In Russia: The Epidemic No One's Talking About. He offered to donate the prize money to organizations featured in the film, but SPID.Tsentr declined.

The NGO has applied to the Kremlin for a presidential grant, but it will be several months before its application is considered.

"If we get state financing this year, it will most likely only come after the quarantine is over," Abdurakhmanov says.

In the meantime, Aburakhmanov says, the number of HIV-positive people who are applying for antiretroviral treatment is skyrocketing, perhaps because they feel the treatment could protect them against coronavirus or because they recognize that their compromised immune systems are now particularly vulnerable.

Standing In Line

"In itself, this is good," he tells RFE/RL. "But they are standing in long lines at AIDS centers, which raises the risk of coronavirus infection. Sometimes 300 people are waiting in these centers, and each one has to come back for more medicine every three months."

In January, Russia's Health Ministry included the antiretroviral medication Kaletra on its list of medicines recommended for the treatment of COVID-19, although its effectiveness for such use is unproven and the U.S. National Institutes of Health warns that it "can cause serious, life-threatening side effects."

The Russian government's recommendation, however, has produced local shortages and made it difficult for some HIV-positive patients to get Kaletra.

"To the best of my knowledge, if [an HIV-positive person] is getting antiretroviral therapy and his immune system is functioning normally, then his risk [of coronavirus infection] is the same as anyone else's,” Nikolayeva says. "But if he is not getting treatment, then his risk goes up, just as it would for anyone else with a chronic illness."

written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by Alina Pinchuk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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