Blood Borne Virus Program at ARCSHS chats to PWV
Our EO, Kirsty Machon, chatted to Jen Johnson from La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society on how PWV’s been working through the last three months. Have a read below!
Jen Johnson: How is it all going? What have the last three months been like?
Kirsty Machon: We were at a national face to face meeting and 2 weeks later we were in lockdown! Positive Women Victoria is a small organisation, and we already had infrastructure to support people to work flexibly to meet their family needs. So the process of transitioning to working remotely was not too complex.
A key issue was transitioning face to face HIV peer support work over to a model that works by Zoom, phone and email. We have also been working to try and get a sense the direct impact of COVID on our members. Among the issues women have faced is loss of income, along with social isolation. People were initially feeling HIV itself might make them more vulnerable, though thankfully it seems this is not the case, so our role was really to reassure people as best we could with the information we had available. We also wanted to be very clear that our main focus was still on HIV, rather than COVID.
We have learnt a lot about the possibilities of working online; we know that we have more ways to reduce social isolation than we realised. So we will never shift our services to online only, but we have always been concerned with the problem of isolation, and after this pandemic shift we know we will be able to use technologies to do better.
There is a concern, though, where moving to online support increases access for some and denies access for others. Lots of people don’t have adequate privacy such as at home, or access to technology. But we are considering the ways that these new forms of online engagement would diversify our offerings and ability to support going forward.
We will soon trial our first online peer support group, which is a group for women of African backgrounds who are living with HIV. This group of women met last year and did some training about providing peer support for each other. We are still working out the details, but we are anticipating that the online format could work really well – especially because the women have already met and connected face to face.
So three months in, how do you think the sector has adapted?
Until now, Zoom meetings have always been considered as an alternative to face to face, even a last resort. I am seeing the level of engagement and communication across the HIV sector markedly increasing. We all have a heightened sense of the benefits of communication, and a realisation that we have been underutilising these opportunities to network better. So there are tremendous benefits for us being a women’s health service organisation. We have always strived to be a flexible workplace and support working from home, and this could become the functioning norm. I think this flexibility will benefit us all.
Another dimension of remote working is the national agenda. Many of us do national HIV advocacy and policy work, and this is an opportunity to reduce domestic air travel, which has a flow on for saving time, better use of resources and of course the environment.
How are you at PWV looking ahead, as we start to see the easing of restrictions?
We have to be working under the advice of DHHS, and the flow of information from DHHS has been really helpful. The information has been clear, consistent and supportive. The Department has recognised the way that COVID has impacted on communities and the workforce. There has been a recognition of the impact of COVID on budgets and spending, and we have been assisted by not having the burden of wondering how to respond flexibly, we have been given the scope to quickly adapt our work. The leadership from Victoria has been really good.
One of the issues that we are now discussing is the COVID safe workplace requirements, which are important but may actually be quite onerous. Some of the concerns are immediately practical: how many people within our space, and what cleaning and safety measures are required. There is also the need to be able to reassure people that we are keeping members safe by taking the time to carefully work through all the measures, and communicating openly to our community.
The other aspect is around workplace safety more broadly, particularly around travel to and from our offices, many of our staff and clients are public transport users. We are contemplating what our future workplaces might look like in respect to future possible pandemics. We are facing one interesting change to the Australian workplace culture, namely that unwell will be actively encouraged not come to work if they may have a cold or flu. This is change to workplace cultures, balancing individual work ethics with the responsibilities we have to communities and each other. It’s a big shift from the attitude people should ‘soldier on’ with cold and flu symptoms. Victoria has taken a good community-wide attitude, lockdown has been very much presented as for the benefit and protection of everyone.
What has lockdown, with the increased surveillance and fear, been like for your communities?
We definitely have had some members accessing support because their personal anxiety has been heightened. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly they have been fearing, unnecessarily or perhaps with reason, that they are at increased risk were they to be exposed to COVID. Anxiety and distress has also been heightened for women not being able to see their grandchildren, who bring great joy, and also because for many women with HIV grandchildren mean something really important in the context of long-term living with HIV. And for some there has been a reminder of the early days of HIV, filled with uncertainty, and feelings of being judged as vectors of transmission. Some of our members were already experiencing complex social challenges, like financial insecurity or visa status, or sleeping rough, and have been impacted much more significantly by the pandemic.
Thank you Kirsty, is there anything else to add?
It’s timely to mention that the Victorian inquiry into the decriminalisation of sex work is underway. We know from experience within the HIV response that it’s supportive social policies and approaches, not punitive laws, that protects community health and wellbeing. There is a really strong evidence base that discriminatory laws simply reduce access to essential care and really protect no one. The COVID pandemic highlights why it’s important to respond to health issues as a community.