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Stigma Research in a Time of Covid-19

During the past year, COVID-19 has erupted into a global pandemic that has deeply impacted the lives of people all across the world. We have had to stay indoors, restrict our movement, and constantly wear personal protective equipment. COVID-19 has limited our ability to access medical care and support networks and taken our loved ones from us. On top of all that, vulnerable groups, such as people living with HIV, still have to deal with issues that predate the spread of coronavirus and find a way to manage in the current circumstances.

Beyond Stigma recognizes that HIV is still a critical problem and epidemic in Zimbabwe. There are some estimates that the coronavirus could put back HIV efforts 10 years due to movement restrictions, lack of medication access, limited support networks, and fewer organizations being able to reach those living with HIV. Without those resources, people living with HIV could be susceptible to experiencing self-stigma and its negative effects. Therefore, Beyond Stigma knew that continuing our work and research on HIV stigma in Zimbabwe was still absolutely critical despite the pandemic.

In 2019, Beyond Stigma and Africaid had decided to partner on a formative research piece to support and guide a self-stigma intervention planned for young people living with HIV in Zimbabwe. I was invited to the team for my research dissertation of my MSc. in Global Health degree at Trinity College Dublin. Together we developed a research plan to understand the unique beliefs and experiences of HIV self-stigma as experienced by the young adult members of Africaid. This research project was intended to be in person interviews conducted in Zimbabwe.

Once COVID-19 hit, I realized that I could not travel to Zimbabwe and many members of Africaid were no longer coming to the facility due to government restrictions and worries of coronavirus. Without medication, HIV causes immunosuppression, so people living with HIV are at increased risk for catching coronavirus. The research boards temporarily shut down and we were unsure of what to do. Do we postpone the research? Do we change the research project? Do we wait it out? How do we adapt? No one had been in a situation quite like this before.

However, we knew that despite how uncertain the world was, that HIV was not going to disappear while coronavirus raged on. We knew that those living with HIV would be disproportionately affected by the crisis and that research and interventions would be needed for people living with HIV more than ever. So, we decided to adapt. The team and I came up with a new plan that allowed us to stay safe and continue our work at the same time. We redesigned the research project to be conducted online and only included members of Africaid who were adherent to their medication in order to minimize risk of coronavirus. Questions and activities were changed and adapted to the online format. Whatsapp and Zoom became our new best friends as we figured out communication and collaboration techniques remotely. In the end, with extra hard work and fantastic teamwork, we were still able to achieve our goal number of interviews.

While the research experience was not quite the same online, we were able to gather valuable data for this study and for the foundation of the self-stigma intervention for young adults. Our findings will help contribute to the growing field of HIV self-stigma and demonstrate to other researchers that important research can still be completed even in the time of COVID-19.

By: Camille Rich, Professional Intern at Beyond Stigma

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