“My message to people living with HIV is: don’t wait tomorrow to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Tomorrow may be too late “- Armen Aghajanov

HIV-positive people can and should be vaccinated against COVID-19 with any available vaccine, believes Armen Aghajanov – co-founder and board member of the Virus OFF public organization and the similarly-named regional information platform, who lives openly with HIV, a public activist, board member of PINK Armenia and “Real World, Real People”. What is the success of the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, why do states repeat the mistakes made during the HIV epidemic in the case with COVID, and how COVID-dissidents should be influenced?

Let’s go back to the very beginning of the epidemic, when it became clear that the coronavirus is a threat not only for China, but for the entire world, when the first cases emerged in Europe and the post-Soviet space. What fears and expectations did you have?

– Initially, I was in some kind of prostration. I didn’t understand what was going on, how and why. We already passed through a period of great news flow about the coronavirus and what was happening in China. This coincided with the period when my partner and I went on vacation, and it happened so that I spent half of my holidays reading the news on my phone. On the one hand, I understood that something global and irreversible was there about. On the other hand, in January 2020, WHO was saying that there was no serious issue. Therefore, my perception was as follows: well, it’s somehow far away, until it reaches us, so we have plenty of time, and nothing says it will reach us indeed. 

But after coming back from vacation, in early February, I flew to Armenia on personal matters, and on my way back, I realized that this would not bypass us, and we needed to get prepared as much as possible. Why did I understand this? Because before my trip, I bought masks at a pharmacy in Yerevan. Masks were already expensive then, there were few of them, but no one wore them. I went to the airport wearing a mask and throughout the airport I was alone in it, and everybody looked at me like some kind of leper.

But returning to Kyiv, when I saw the situation with the mask, I start to understand that something went wrong. And then there were more serious thoughts about what to do, how to protect yourself.

Your own words, that at first it seemed: it’s far away, it’s not about me at all, not about us, it won’t affect us. Do you see something in common between the HIV epidemic and COVID?

– Definitely yes. The response to the epidemic and the spread of the epidemic in both cases was very late. History knows no ifs, but if the reaction were faster and more adequate, then perhaps the pandemic would be a little postponed.

Both the HIV epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic would still have happened, but one could somehow be prepared for them and somehow keep them away. More parallels with HIV: there has been a strong stigmatization of people who could have a coronavirus and who have been diagnosed with it. In particular, I have seen this clearly in Ukraine. A lockdown was introduced here relatively early, March 12-13, 2020. And during this period, people from abroad were taken back and put afterwards in self-isolation and observation. The first tourists flow, if I am not mistaken, from China, was greeted by the society with too much of abjection. Up to blocking the street to the location where people were taken for observation. There were attempts to block, set fire, spoil something so that people could not get into the area where they were placed for observation. People were afraid that they might be infected. But they didn’t even know whether these people had COVID or not.

For me, it was a touchstone that stigma and discrimination also play a big role here, and we need to adhere to the idea that stigmatizing discrimination against people for health reasons or for their perceived health condition, be it coronavirus or HIV, is too bad for society.

Basically, I see the same thing now, but more in the context of denial. Once it was the movement denying the existence of HIV that was widespread (and it is still developed in some countries), so now it is the COVID. You can see comments on the online vaccination pages, which are deplorable. I feel ashamed sometimes that people do not want to think and believe that the coronavirus is fiction, they believe that people who have had coronavirus actually had the flu, and those who died, they died from something else. It’s shocking and sad.

Are you focused on the entire post-Soviet region, or your target is preferably Armenia, where you come from, and Ukraine, where you live now?

– I’m focusing on the whole region, but with certain accents in Ukraine and Armenia. In my information field, these two countries dominate.

Don’t you think that some territories have been more successful in preventing COVID, in vaccinating the population, or do we have a more or less deplorable situation everywhere?

– If we talk about the eastern countries (we’re not going to take into account the western post-Soviet space), then it is the same more or less everywhere. There were certain successes in different countries in different directions, but I wouldn’t say that on a global scale at the country level, this somehow contributed to an improvement in the situation. Anyway, I don’t see a lot of information flowing against the myths about COVID. There is information, but this is more of a sick rates records. At the same time, most people have an inadequate reaction to this, they seek out some kind of conspiracy theories and concentrate their attention on it.

Have you personally encountered COVID issues?

– I was probably lucky, I have not yet got ill, at least as far as I know. But among our relatives and friends there are many people who have already been ill. Some of them caught it more than once. Fortunately, most of them survived it normally, there were certain difficulties, but now they feel better. Only one person among my closed ones died in connection with the COVID. His death was associated with the inability of the medical system in Georgia to respond to the situation. A couple – husband and wife – caught the virus, the doctors said that only one of them could be hospitalized, and they both decided that they would not go to the hospital. As a result, the husband died that night. He also had other health issues.

The collapse of healthcare in front of an increasing number of seriously ill patients is, unfortunately, a common place in our countries. Although the availability of effective vaccines, including Russian ones, is good news. Have you been waiting for the vaccine? After all, we were told that is impossible, that they will be available very soon. 

– To tell you the truth, last year I did not expect a vaccine at all. I was very skeptical that it could appear by the end of 2020. I compared it with HIV, although the two viruses are difficult to compare, but still: if it has not yet been possible to develop a vaccine against HIV, it will be difficult to develop an effective vaccine against coronavirus within a year. But when information began to spread, when I studied the issue, I was glad. I decided right away that I would get jabbed as soon as the first opportunity presented itself. It was not important for me what kind of vaccine it would be, and I studied how they were tested with the participation of people living with HIV of different ages.

I was vaccinated just recently, and I’m very happy to do it!

Various vaccines are available on the territory of our countries, the most popular now are “AstraZeneca”, “Sputnik”, and “CoronaVac”. In Ukraine, the vaccines “Pfizer”, “Modern” are already available to almost everyone, with a priority on certain categories of citizens.

What are the moods in the community of people living with HIV? It is already known that vaccination against coronavirus is not contraindicated for people with HIV, but moreover it is also desirable. However, I see that many people doubt it and, on the other hand, there are cases when people with HIV were denied vaccination because of their HIV status.

– For people living with HIV, thanks to the work of doctors and non-profit nongovernmental organizations, the necessary information is delivered. The more this work is done, the more people will understand that they need vaccinations. It was a shock for me to hear that somewhere, for example in Russia, people living with HIV are being denied because of their status. These are out of the ordinary cases, I couldn’t  understand how this can fit into the head of a person with a medical education. My colleagues, who were vaccinated in the first round, are mostly HIV-positive themselves, here in Ukraine, and all of them talked about their status when receiving the vaccine, there were no refusals because of the status. The same applies to Armenia.

To be fair, among my closest ones those who live with HIV in Russia, no one was rejected. But, unfortunately, this happens sometimes.

– I think it is reasonable to be careful about vaccination of people who have really weakened immunity, detectable viral load, low immune status. But for those people who are already receiving ART, who have suppressed viral load, who do not have concomitant diseases that could be contraindications, it would be too bad to refuse. If this repeats in any of the countries of our region, it won’t be good for everyone.

What arguments can be used in conversations with HIV-positive people who still have doubts about the need for vaccination?

– I think it must be repeated that vaccines have already been studied, their effects on a wide variety of people have been verified. We can definitely say that the response to vaccination in people with and without HIV is the same. The side effects are the same, there is no increased risk of complications. We must learn to trust the vaccine and understand that its main goal is to protect us, including if we get sick in the future. No one can guarantee that we will not catch the virus as a result of vaccination. But the likelihood of complications, death, hospitalization will be lower. And one more point: the vaccinated person prevents the number of new cases and makes a real contribution to the fight against the pandemic. My main recommendation is not to be afraid and not to wait for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, because it can be too late.

Margarita Loginov