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Lessons from ‘Be Bold’ which tackled HIV, can be an answer to COVID-19 crisis

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Lessons from ‘Be Bold’ which tackled HIV, can be an answer to COVID-19 crisis

The world is going through one of the worst health, social and economic crises ever which is touted as a threat to humanity itself. The COVID-19 has claimed over 1.5 lakh lives, has infected more than 24 lakh people globally and still shows no signs of abating. Governments worldwide are putting in collective efforts, brainstorming solutions and investing huge sums to strengthen their healthcare facilities. Certainly, there is a need for stronger executions with effective planning to control not just the pandemic but save lives and economy to keep systems running. Amidst this havoc, a question arises, is there a need for an unconventional approach, Do we need a public movement or a campaign to empower the common man to fight for himself? Addressing the cause writes Adarsh Som, Sub Editor, Elets News Network facilitated by Sanghamitra Mohanty, Elets News Network.

One campaign which played a crucial role in fighting, controlling and reducing the incidence of another virus-HIV in the then State of Andhra Pradesh is the ‘Be Bold’ campaign of 2006-2008 period, which had caught the attention of world bodies like UNAIDS. The Be-bold campaign was started by G Asok Kumar, the present Additional Secretary and Mission Director- National Water Mission, Government of India, when he was the Project Director of Andhra Pradesh AIDS Control Society (APSACS). Recently, reminiscing about the success of this campaign and its significance in times of COVID-19, G Asok Kumar took to twitter saying, “Testing, Tracking (and Counseling) the infected, Treatment and Stigma-Reduction were the four pillars on which the successful ‘Be Bold’ campaign was based. It was followed in Andhra Pradesh in 2006-2008 to fight HIV/AIDS. The same path can also lead us out of the COVID-19 issue.”

About ‘Be Bold’ 

The ‘Be Bold’ campaign was launched with an aim to “translate awareness into action/(behavioural change), reduce stigma and discrimination against affected people”. Be bold was the message and testing was the medium.

BeBoldPeople were encouraged to Be-Bold to come out and test to know their HIV status and modify their behavior accordingly. Those tested positive for HIV virus were counseled to behave responsibly to prevent further transmission of the virus and to utilize the health services provided to save from infections due to their reduced immunity levels. Those tested negative were advised to use safe practices and avoid getting infected.

Leading the testing campaign, Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the then CM of AP, his cabinet colleagues, Speaker of the assembly underwent the HIV tests publically, triggering off a fivefold increase (from 5 lakhs to 24 lakhs) in the number of tests during the campaign period (compared to the same period prior to the campaign). This massive testing helped to uncover many positive cases. They were tracked and confidentially counseled for safe practices which helped to contain new infections. They were also brought under medical care of those medical professionals who were Bold to treat these HIV positive people. Bold Doctors clubs were constituted in every district and their names listed in a directory so that the HIV positive people could go to them Boldly to get the medical help.

‘Be Bold’ campaign had general as well as targeted messaging which were non-judgmental and positive in nature, mainly against the stigma and discrimination that got associated with the HIV. The targeted messages motivated families to Be Bold to take care of their family members suffering from HIV; Doctors to Be Bold to treat HIV infected patients; Teachers to Be Bold to teach HIV positive students; and the Youth to Be Bold to accept HIV infected people as friends. The campaign also influenced the youth to Be Bold to deny the negative peer pressures and not to fall for unprotected sexual practices. 1097- A toll-free number was launched to help people to know more about HIV/AIDS, its causes, symptoms and treatment.

The campaign mainstreamed the fight against HIV involving all wings of Government, civil society, and people. Initiatives like the “0/7 initiative” to prevent HIV transmission from Mother to Child; drive for behavioral changes among sex-workers to increase condom usage, etc. were also part of the Be Bold campaign. The crowning glory of boldness was when over 8000 people living with HIV/AIDS congregated openly at Silparam, Hyderabad on December 7, 2007. This is the largest gathering ever of HIV positive people in the world and a great morale booster for those who gathered there.

The successful and effective execution of the campaign was so good that it was considered by UNAIDS as one of the best interventions in the fight against HIV/AIDS. G Asok Kumar, the man behind the campaign, was invited to make a presentation on the ‘Be Bold’ campaign at the International AIDS Society’s Annual Conference in Mexico City in August 2008. ‘Be Bold’ campaign resulted in a significant reduction of incidence of HIV cases and also of stigma and discrimination against HIV affected people. Due to awareness spread through the movement, mother to child transmission in the state of Andhra Pradesh also slumped. Moreover, off-take of medicines and treatment increased which resulted in a perceivable reduction in HIV affected cases.Lessons from ‘Be Bold’ which tackled HIV, can be an answer to COVID-19 crisis

Significance of ‘Be Bold’ in times of COVID-19 pandemic

Many steps of the ‘Be Bold’ campaign can be relevant in the fight against the Covid-19. Increasing awareness and testing, and motivating people to behave responsibly based on the results are crucial in the fight against COVID-19. Also, considering the fact that social distancing is the best form of prevention, a public movement like ‘Be Bold’ could be a medium to target individuals and make them responsible for themselves.

Such a campaign for improving the situation not only at the individual level but at the city level, state level and even countrywide is possible, reflecting on the four pillars mentioned by G Asok Kumar. However, there is a need to upscale the approach considering the massive impact of the pandemic and the fear in the minds of people. ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ should be abetted by five pillars  – Prevention, Tracking, Testing, Quarantine, and Stigma Reduction.

Prevention and containment are the best ways to slow the transmission of Coronavirus. The Government of India, having realized that, has implemented a nationwide lockdown to break the chain of transmission. ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ can be propagated among the people requesting them to stay home and contribute their bit in the global fight against the viral pandemic. The campaign can be powered by social media platforms, webinars, television channels, advertisements, etc. and can become a medium to engage people in various activities to help people stay home. For instance, platforms like TikTok, Instagram can effectively be used to throw challenges to people which can further be followed, liked and shared as a fun activity. Also, as the original ‘Be Bold’ campaign, targeted messages can be sent to people to spread positivity to calm the fear among people.

Testing is a significant step in the fight against COVID-19, because it helps to identify the carriers of the virus.

Tracking those tested positive and tracing their contacts  is  essential to slow down its transmission. And, the Government has been proactive in devising strategies and using technology to track the COVID-19 outbreak. ‘ArogyaSetu’ mobile app, a COVID-19 tracker application,  was recently launched by the Government. Taking the efforts by the Government forward, ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ can be helpful in spreading awareness to the remotest corners of the country and making people aware of the usage and significance of ArogyaSetu app. Its technology can be integrated with a messaging service so that if any COVID-19 positive patient is in near proximity, an alert can be sent to even those old aged poor people without smartphones.

Isolation or Quarantine is also essential to prevent the spread of the virus. However, lack of understanding regarding quarantine among people has triggered a fear psychosis in the minds of people. ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ can be a lighthouse to disperse accurate and correct information. The campaign can include organizing activities, talk sessions on various topics in the quarantine centres or isolation wards while ensuring social distancing to make it easier for people to sail through their quarantine period. The campaign can further initiate video conferencing sessions for motivating people to do music and similar activities which can disperse positivity among people. Local artists, magicians, comedians can be contacted to prepare videos or do live shows on video calls and more. ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ can act as an effective platform to make people realize the significance of quarantine and de-stigmatize it.

Stigma Reduction is the need of the hour as it is commonly observed that many people have been critical of medical personnel engaged in treating COVID-19 patients residing in their localities, suspecting them as Coronavirus carriers. There have been cases where people have thrown stones at doctors and nurses; landlords pushing doctors and nurses out of their rented accommodations and even violence against these corona warriors. This shows the unsupportive and uncivilized behaviour of people against those who are the actual frontline warriors against the viral pandemic. People are afraid to get tested due to the fear of isolation in the society. Hence many people have hidden their travel history and symptoms to avoid COVID-19 test. There are instances where people have committed suicide when were tested positive for the COVID-19. There is an urgent need to address these unfounded fears among people and the best way out could be spreading positive awareness. Hence, ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ can be a tool to empower people by sharing accurate and correct information regarding the pandemic, strengthening them by imparting knowledge about the infection and quarantine practices. Measures taken during the HIV/AIDS Be Bold campaign can be used to reduce stigma about COVID-19 in society. Targeted messages can be used for spreading positive attitude to reduce discrimination.Lessons from ‘Be Bold’ which tackled HIV, can be an answer to COVID-19 crisis

The way forward

The five pillars of the ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ campaign are not only the very basis of the campaign but also can act as a roadmap to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Ensuring prevention, advocating testing, active tracking, helping people in quarantine by casting out fear of isolation and promoting togetherness for stigma reduction can lead us out of the pandemic situation.

The ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ campaign should be scaled up to the global levels. Taking the Global Climate Strike initiated by Greta Thunberg as an example, ‘Be Bold to fight COVID-19’ should be advocated in global forums and followed worldwide to aid the humanity and inculcate a feeling of togetherness among every person irrespective of the country, class, colour, religion, race, sex as the crisis is for everyone.

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