The Plagues COVID-19 Visits on LGBTQ East Africans

LGBTQ Ugandans served by the Mbarara Rise Foundation, seen here participating in PrEP training in January, are facing food insecurity and barriers to HIV treatment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Facebook/ Mbarara Rise Foundation

The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on queer communities in East Africa, where an LGBTQ refugee in Kenya appears to have hanged himself in despair on April 13 and a sudden hunger crisis in nearby Uganda has forced HIV-positive gay men to stop taking their HIV treatment medication because they can no longer tolerate the effects of it without food.

The economic downturn, food insecurity, and health consequences have compounded the existing hardships in a region where queer individuals have already suffered from mistreatment by law enforcement as well as cultural stigma. Cops in Uganda last month raided a shelter for LGBTQ youth and charged individuals with violating coronavirus-related social distancing regulations — even though they were gathered in the shelter because they could not be safe outside it.

Community faces food insecurity, job losses, police abuse, barriers to HIV meds, even suicide

The Refugee Coalition of East Africa (RefCEA), which consists of multiple groups aimed at improving the lives of LGBTQ refugees in the region, acknowledged the reports of a man who hanged himself in front of the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While there are few details surrounding the man’s death, RefCEA officials said “he was without hope, without options, and left in a state where he believed that to leave this world was preferable to existing under the circumstances of his life.” Queer refugees have, in the past, held protests at that location in desperate pleas for assistance.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, the Mbarara Rise Foundation, comprised of activists and educators who advocate for health services and the human rights of LGBTQ people in western Uganda, is shedding light on the plight of hungry HIV-positive queer men who have lost work due to the crisis.

“Many work in bars, casinos, or in other gathering places, which have all been shuttered under the lock-down,” Mbarara Rise Foundation’s founder and executive director, Real Raymond, said in a written statement. “This is a tough situation for the LGBTQI people who are HIV-positive who, in addition to limited access to medical services, have no food to eat.”

He continued, “The majority are daily income earners and this means during the lockdown they are not making a living. Many of our members have silently stopped taking their daily HIV treatment due to lack of food to eat. The medications they have been prescribed are strong and cannot be taken on an empty stomach, which has led many to stop taking their medication entirely.”

Raymond also pointed to yet another dilemma unfolding as a result of the precarious situation facing HIV-positive individuals: Those who are unable to take their medication could leave their immune system even more vulnerable to coronavirus.

“Those who stopped taking their meds are putting their lives in great danger, but they tell me that whenever they take them on an empty stomach, their body becomes too weak, feverish, and headachey,” he said. “When I talked to one such member, he said he is willing to resume once he finds something to eat… but for the time being, under the current circumstances, it is not possible.”

In response, the Mbarara Rise Foundation launched a fundraiser aimed at providing HIV-positive gay Ugandans with food, masks, and other necessities. The items will also be provided to queer individuals who are quarantined in rural areas.

In addition to advocacy and health-based services, the Mbarara Rise Foundation has played a purposeful role in leading economic empowerment programs to help queer Ugandans become financially independent. Among those programs include opportunities for members to learn how to bake cakes and make bricks.

The organization is one of just a small handful of publicly-known groups dedicated to queer folks in a nation that lacks LGBTQ rights and routinely persectures members of the community.

Those groups include the Children of the Sun Foundation, which serves the health, social service, and housing needs of queer folks, as well as Sexual Minorities Uganda, a non-governmental organization once led by the late David Kato, a gay activist who was murdered in 2011.

More than 1.4 million people in Uganda were living with HIV as of 2018 and the percentage of individuals living with HIV between the ages of 15 and 49 was 5.7 percent, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

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