When Uganda went into lockdown on March 18 due to the COVID 19 pandemic, this presented a challenge to the sexual reproductive health space. Young people and other vulnerable groups were greatly affected by the lack of access to SRHR services such as contraceptives and even face-to-face or counseling jeopardising the confidentiality of clients.
It goes without surprise that so many people were caught off guard by the lockdown and many including business owners and organisations are still left without balance. To most young people stocking the ordinarily and daily stone through accessed commodities and services was not something that crossed their youthful minds, while clinics and health centers closed shop due to presidential directives. No one was warned on how long it would be and perhaps none anticipated that the period would take much longer.
For some semi-independent youths including university students especially the girls, the lockdown found them in their boyfriends’ hostel rooms or apartments with limited access to any contraceptive like condoms.
While most health workers went home and others channeled to the Coronavirus rapid response units, the nation went into panic mode about the victims and new cases but no one was keen on what then will happen to the different health components. These include access to sexual reproductive health and rights information and services.
With the limited supplies of condoms, pills, and ARVs or even accessing IUDs, implants, and injectables among others from their health facilities, it goes without mention that post-COVID-19 might not only contribute to a baby boom and increased GBV cases but also largely affect those that have not had access to their antiretroviral treatment. Stock-outs of contraceptives are already a problem encountered globally particularly due to the reduction in the manufacture.
In Reach A Hand Uganda’s recent webinar themed, “Dealing with COVID 19: The conversation on young people’s access to SRHR services in lockdown”, which acted as a safe space for young people to share their experiences accessing SRH information and services during the lockdown. The discussed highlighted the existing gaps in access to SRH commodities as well as how to create limit the access gap. The conversation attracted over 1012 participants including young people, policymakers, development agencies, CSOs, and the media.
Emily Katarikawe, Country Director for Jhpiego in Uganda, and one of the panelists highlighted the current state of SRHR service provision in the wake of COVID-19 and gave an overview of the present situation. For many young people living with HIV, there is a great problem of social stigma explaining why over 95% of them cannot pick their medication from clinics in places around their residences hence they travel long distances.
Winnie Akidi, a Family Planning youth champion with African Youth and Adolescent Network on population and development (AfriYAN) Ugandan Chapter and also the Founder of We Talk series emphasized the need to strengthen peer to peer support systems during the lockdown so that young people can have access to information regarding family planning services and this can be over call in or WhatsApp groups or any other social media platforms.
Another panelist during the discussion Emmy Otim leads a team dedicated to offering door to door delivery services including ARVs. Otim who is the Regional Co-ordinator for Christian Democratic International center says that fellow young people have been extremely instrumental in ensuring that this process is successful in the different areas while the distributions are made. These are however professionals who ensure client confidentiality is key.
Dr. Dinah Nakiganda the Assistant Commissioner Adolescent Health in the Ministry of Health, Uganda presented strategies the government has put in place to ensure continued access to SRHR. These include utilising the available toll-free numbers by the ministry’s partner organisations and using the referrals to medical centers that are open during the lockdown and can offer SRHR services.
Amidst all, the media has played a vital role in creating a platform to disseminate information about all things COVID-19 in the country. A Ugandan journalist Raymond Mujuni who was the guest appearance during the webinar highlighted that all forms of media need to do more regarding amplifying the voices of young people to have their SRHR needs catered for.