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COVID-19, HIV and key populations: cross-cutting issues and the need for population-specific responses

journal contribution
posted on 2020-12-17, 00:43 authored by J Iversen, K Sabin, J Chang, R Morgan Thomas, Garrett PrestageGarrett Prestage, SA Strathdee, L Maher
© 2020 The Authors. Journal of the International AIDS Society published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of the International AIDS Society. Introduction: Key populations at elevated risk to contract or transmit HIV may also be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications and adverse outcomes associated with public health prevention measures. However, the conditions faced by specific populations vary according to social, structural and environmental factors, including stigma and discrimination, criminalization, social and economic safety nets and the local epidemiology of HIV and COVID-19, which determine risk of exposure and vulnerability to adverse health outcomes, as well as the ability to comply with measures such as physical distancing. This commentary identifies common vulnerabilities and cross-cutting themes in terms of the impacts of COVID-19 on key populations before addressing issues and concerns specific to particular populations. Discussion: Cross-cutting themes include direct impacts such as disrupted access to essential medicines, commodities and services such as anti-retroviral treatment, HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, opioid agonist treatment, viral load monitoring, HIV and sexually transmitted infections testing, condoms and syringes. Indirect impacts include significant collateral damage arising from prevention measures which restrict human rights, increase or impose criminal penalties, and expand police powers to target vulnerable and criminalized populations. Significant heterogeneity in the COVID-19 pandemic, the underlying HIV epidemic and the ability of key populations to protect themselves means that people who inject drugs and sex workers face particular challenges, including indirect impacts as a result of police targeting, loss of income and sometimes both. Geographical variations mean that transgender people and men who have sex with men in regions like Africa and the middle east remain criminalized, as well as stigmatized and discriminated against, increasing their vulnerability to adverse outcomes in relation to COVID-19. Conclusions: Disruptions to both licit and illicit supply chains, loss of income and livelihoods and changes in behaviour as a result of lockdowns and physical distancing have the potential to exacerbate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on key populations. While these impacts will vary significantly, human-rights approaches to COVID-19 emergency laws and public health prevention measures that are population-specific and sensitive, will be key to reducing adverse health outcomes and ensuring that no one is left behind.


JI is supported by a UNSW Sydney Strategic Fellowship and LM is supported by the award of an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council Senior Research Fellowship. Funders had no role in writing of this commentary. The corresponding author had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication.


Publication Date



Journal of the International AIDS Society





Article Number

ARTN e25632


6p. (p. 1-6)


John Wiley & Sons Ltd



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