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Delores Robinson chats with a Sea Lots resident.

Delores Robinson’s days are usually busy. She heads GROOTS Trinidad and Tobago, a civil society organisation that provides psychosocial care for people living with HIV and manages a transition house.

But since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed, Ms Robinson’s workdays have become a whirlwind. Containment measures have thrust the most vulnerable people further into the margins.

GROOTS Trinidad and Tobago is an example of how civil society organisations can move quickly to identify and respond to the needs of the voiceless. Ms Robinson, a Jamaican, has lived in T&T for the past 34 years. During the conversation, she alternated between wide, open smiles and a furrowed brow. These days there’s lots to worry about.

Every day she prepares meals for 30 families. She then personally delivers them. There is no structured funding for this effort—just money and other contributions from HIV response stakeholders.

There is a unique story at each drop-off point. One day she manoeuvred through the narrow roads of Sea Lots, a low-income community in the shadow of the capital city, Port-of-Spain. The men on the block recognised her car. One offered to deliver her parcel. She laughed. Ms Robinson had come to the seven children of a single mother living with HIV.

The Government has provided a range of COVID-19 relief options. These include salary relief, rental assistance grants and nutrition support. Sometimes Ms Robinson’s role is to help clients navigate government systems. For example, one illiterate HIV positive mother lost her food card and needs help getting it replaced during COVID-19.

“The forms are complicated for many people plus they don’t have internet service,” Ms Robinson explained.

“Now that we are all being encouraged to conduct business online, many have no access.”

Since the stay-home orders went into effect, she has been asked by the police to accommodate women and children at the transitional home. The combination of income loss and constant contact has exacerbated abusive situations, leading to a spike in domestic violence reports.

Ms Robinson reported that her clients living with HIV have so far had no problem accessing their treatment. Before COVID-19 it was standard practice for T&T clinics to dispense two to three months of HIV medicines at a time. HIV treatment facilities and STI clinics remain open, though with altered hours.

“They have their meds,” she said. “What they need most now is nutritional support to be able to stay healthy and take their treatment.” And they need masks.

UNAIDS Caribbean is advocating for governments in the region to ensure that community organisations like GROOTS are included in decision-making and planning around meeting the needs of vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 crisis. They are an essential service, ensuring people’s most basic needs are met. They believe these organisations should be included in contingency plans for connecting people living with HIV to services. And they should be resourced.

“We think we’re all in this together but there are many people who don’t have the things we take for granted—a safe home, healthy food and the ability to speak out. It’s tiring work but it’s needed now more than ever,” Ms Robinson added.

(UNAIDS Caribbean)