Emergencies demand more dedicated efforts

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My name is Dipak Chakraborty and I am one of the field mobilizers of the Samarth project presently operational in Hooghly as well as Howrah districts of West Bengal. I have been the Samarth field mobilizer for both phases I and II of the Samarth project in Hooghly and Howrah. I am 54 years old, live with my family (wife and son), and prefer to identify myself as a member of the transgender community.

Samarth Amitie clinic is a Community Based Organisation (CBO) that works with the MSM (men who have sex with men) and TGH (transgender and hijra) community in the Hooghly and Howrah districts of West Bengal. The main agenda of project Samarth is screening community members for HIV, STI (Sexually Transmitted infections), TB (Tuberculosis), NCD (Non-Communicable Diseases) and also providing them counselling. During this pandemic situation, we all have to maintain certain safety measures. Local train services have not been functional since long and the state has been put under lockdown. Because of this, the Samarth Hooghly clinic was shut for nearly 2.5 months. No screening tests could be conducted. Personally, I could not physically visit my fields neither could I attend office.

This problem was affecting all our PLHIVs (People Living with HIV) of the MSM & TGH community of Howrah and Hooghly. They could not physically come and talk to me, their follow-ups were held up as the clinic was shut. I contacted my patients either over the telephone or virtually however there was certain dissatisfaction that I felt about not being able to visit them physically.

I have been working at the grass-root level with the MSM and TGH community for a very long time. I consider all my patients as members of my own family. When they are in distress, it affects me. Many of my patients kept on requesting me to visit my field, they were eager to see me and talk to me face to face. They wanted to get their follow up screening tests done at the earliest. However, I could do nothing except counsel them over the phone and virtual media. I felt terribly helpless. I could not find any solution to this problem.

I live at Bandel which is very far from our Samarth clinic at Serampore. I have to take the local train daily to travel to my office which is not feasible in the present time. I did visit the office on the first day it was re-opened after the lockdown. It took me a long time to travel to my office on a bicycle and I realized that it would not be physically possible for me to ride to the office everyday. We have therefore decided that I will conduct screening camps at Tribeni which is at Bandel. I would not have to travel and all my patients can be screened as well. We will also conduct satellite camps near my house as well to enable more screening tests.

Upon receiving the solution, I feel content and happy. My patients would not suffer any further. They would undergo regular screening tests and follow-ups. Also, they would undergo daily health check-ups.

This is an extraordinary situation. Usually, we provide handholding support through our program but this time when our clinic has also been kept shut, I had to go out of the way to provide emergency support. This was unexpected for our clients. They thought that they would not be able to contact me or meet me before the pandemic ends. However, I tried my best to remain in touch with them over the phone and over social media. Now that this lockdown is being lifted, they can visit me at the camps as well.

Alliance India’s Samarth Project is a community-led programme on HIV screening and treatment linkage for men who have sex with men (MSM) and the transgender (TG) communities. The programme is being implemented in six sites of priority states of India that includes South Delhi (Delhi NCR), Hyderabad (Telangana), Bangalore (Karnataka), Jalandhar (Punjab), Vadodara (Gujarat) and Hooghly (West Bengal). Acknowledged as a successful community-based HIV screening model in the country, the programme has screened more than 11,000 MSM and TG people during the first phase (June 2016 -September 2019). In the second phase (starting from October 2019), Samarth is aiming to establish differential service approach for more at-risk MSM and TG communities with higher risk associations (multiple sex partners, substance use, and susceptible to violence).

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