HIV and COVID-19: How 2 pandemics underscore the need for public health education

Spreading awareness and education about World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) will look very different this year, as activists aim to reach audiences online and fight isolation brought on by a new deadly virus.

In Winnipeg, Nine Circles Community Health Centre is preparing for virtual fundraisers on Facebook and working on two social media campaigns, said executive director Mike Payne.

“It really is about using this opportunity where people are glued to their social media and other virtual platforms to help bring voices forward on behalf of folks who are living with (HIV),” Payne said.

“They can talk about issues of stigma and access and how far we’ve come over the last decade and really how much more needs to be done.”

About 1,300 people in Manitoba are knowingly living with HIV, Payne said. He expects that number could rise this year.

“It’s been harder to access certain health-care services (during the COVID-19 pandemic), so we expect maybe delays in people getting tested, which could result in a bit of a boom soon,” Payne said.

“We were already seeing a syphilis outbreak and other STBBI outbreaks throughout the province. HIV often follows that. We were already on that trajectory before COVID hit.”

In Saskatchewan, frontline service workers have also spoken out about fears the COVID-19 pandemic is making their province’s HIV epidemic worse.  

Locally, Payne and others continue to push the Manitoba government to fund HIV medications and Pre-exposure prophylaxis (more commonly known as PrEP), pills that reduce the risk of HIV transmission. In many other provinces, such as Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, these drugs are already covered.

Many Manitobans have been deferring their HIV treatment due to costs, Payne said, which can range from $250-$1,000 per month, according to a CBC report last year.

While the global response to COVID-19 has dominated public health attention this year, a new report by UNAIDS out last week warned the response to AIDS is being pushed further off track. According to the report, there are 1.7 million people who have been infected due to lack of access to HIV services and 12 million people who do not have access to treatments. The report sets new “ambitious but achievable” targets for countries to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

Payne said he is motivated, however, by the speed at which COVID-19 research is happening and how swiftly governments have reacted to the virus. He hopes this momentum carries over into the HIV movement.

“Now we know what the system can do to mobilize if they’re willing to do so and it changes the game a little bit,” Payne said.

Much has been written about the similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including lessons learned in the decades since HIV and AIDS dominated headlines within North America.

On World AIDS Day, we have to continue stamping out stigma, misinformation and fear of the unknown – strains that connect both viruses.

“There’s always an opportunity to use World AIDS Day to educate yourself,” Payne said.

“The more you know about HIV transmission, the less fearful you’ll be and the better ally you can be to other people who are living with HIV.”


To learn more about HIV and AIDS, look to local and global organizations such as:

World AIDS Day also falls on Giving Tuesday this year. If you are looking to donate to the cause, here are four Manitoba organizations to consider: