A health worker checks medical bed equipment at a hospital in Daejeon on Jan. 12. (Yonhap)
Concerns are growing as HIV testing has been suspended at most local health centers across Seoul to prioritize the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All 25 local health centers in the capital used to provide free and anonymous sexually transmitted infection and HIV tests until 2019. Nearly two years into the pandemic, however, HIV and STI testing capacity has been drastically reduced with many locations having stopped testing all together.
“We understand that seven community health centers in the city still provide HIV tests,” said an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
The locations include the districts of Jongno, Gangbuk, Dobong, Eunpyeong, Gwanak, Gangnam and Jungnang, though only rapid tests appear to be currently available. Residents from other districts regardless of their nationality can receive free and anonymous testing. Hospitals also offer HIV and STI tests but they are not free.
“Due to a manpower shortage, the staff who used to handle HIV and STI testing are now helping with the COVID-19 response instead. Some centers are still offering tests but with many working from home, it is difficult to operate at full capacity,” the official added.
The number of HIV tests taken in 2020 stood at 178,653, a near 60 percent drop compared to 2019, according to data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The figure for last year, which has yet to be released, is expected to be even lower, the official said.
The fall in testing was more noticeable in Seoul, which saw an 82.4 percent decline in testing, the KDCA said in a report last year, citing the COVID-19 response as a reason.
The government’s current HIV policy is to find HIV positive people, get them to start medication and encourage people to get tested, similar to its approach to COVID.
And community health centers play a crucial role in the approach, said activist Jae Kim from civic organization Health Right Network.
“Community health centers are essentially the only place in the country where you can get a free and anonymous HIV test. When you go to a hospital, there is a fear that your HIV status could end up in your medical records when you test positive.
“It’s an infectious disease associated with a great deal of prejudice and discrimination,” he said.
Last week, iSHAP, an HIV and STI checkup center for sexual minorities, said in a statement that it is “struggling” financially and asked for donations.
“iSHAP heavily relies on government funding and is vulnerable to any changes in support from the government each year,” the statement read.
“Please help us if you want to ensure that gay men and trans women in Korea have a healthy life free from AIDS.”
The center, which operates three locations – Jongno, Itaewon in Seoul and one in Busan -- was founded in 2003 by the Korea Federation for HIV/AIDS Prevention which works with the health authorities in preventing the infectious diseases.
Both iSHAP and the federation have declined to comment on the matter.
An official at the federation told The Korea Herald, however, that it is planning to “cut down its operation.”
There has “not been a cut in government funding,” however, said one official at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
“It is not just sexually transmitted infections and HIV, but also other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis that have become a problem (amid the pandemic),” the KDCA official added.Social minorities overshadowed by pandemic efforts
The government has faced criticism from civic groups for ordering the state-run National Medical Center in late December to open up 300 hospital beds.
Two civic groups representing voters have claimed some 80 people consisting of those from low-income households, homeless people and migrant workers were “kicked out” of the public hospital to make room for COVID-19 beds.
“The government kicked out poor and sick people onto the street in the cold winter,” the groups said in a statement.
The move came at a time the country saw a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
When asked for comment, the National Medical Center said that the decision was made by the central government and that patients are being sent to other hospitals and facilities depending on their medical severity.
Many public palliative care units have also been shut down and converted into hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. Kim said social minorities including homeless people and HIV patients were hit hardest by the decision.
“Most people who use public hospitals are social minorities such as basic livelihood security recipients, disabled people, homeless people and HIV patients,” he said.
“Members of the public have come to believe everything can be compromised for COVID. But the problem with that utilitarian approach is that difficulties faced by social minorities are ignored and their deaths are shrugged off as inevitable or incidental.
“No one is talking about what is happening to them apart from civic groups like us.”