Covid-19, HIV and me

by Dipontseng Kheo, Professional Nurse, CSA&G

When the news of Covid-19 came I panicked and feared for my loved ones who recently moved to China.

And when the first case was confirmed in South Africa, as a Professional Nurse working at the CSA&G mainly with HIV testing, I started getting calls and messages. From students, relatives and friends, about how this would affect them since they were living with HIV. I could sense fear, panic and stress. I did not know much about Covid-19 and I started reading more. It was said that individuals who were on treatment, and were stable, would be seen as low risk. This helped to put the people I was communicating with at ease because they were on treatment and complying well.

In my opinion, and looking at the trends of how it affects individuals who are older and individuals with underlying medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease, I feel individuals who are on treatment and stable need not panic.

My advice for individuals with HIV is the same for everybody else: they should take their medication religiously, avoid stress as this also can lower immunity, maintain social distancing, wash hands frequently, wear a mask to prevent one inhaling air droplets from an infected person, and avoid touching their faces to prevent entry of the virus.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “People living with HIV who have a compromised immune system should be extra cautious to prevent coronavirus infection. These include people with a low CD4 count (<200 copies/cell), a high viral load, or a recent opportunistic infection. This is because your immune system may not be prepared to deal with the virus. We also know that people living with HIV are more vulnerable to respiratory infections when their HIV is not well managed. For this reason it’s very important to be taking your antiretroviral treatment as prescribed – always, but especially during this time”.

There have been some uncertainties about how Covid-19 spreads, like whether it is airborne or not. Over the past few weeks it has been confirmed that you can actually contract it from inhaling droplets of an infected person if you are standing less than one meter away from them. That is where social distancing came about. Weeks before lockdown I witnessed a physical fight between two people at a retail store because one individual touched the other, showing that people don’t always agree on what should be done.

Because I have worked in HIV I have been thinking about the similarities and differences between the two diseases.


The lack of information has caused fear and enormous amount of panic about both HIV and Covid-19 –involving the community and giving information on all social media platforms helps to reduce fear and builds compliance.


We saw, when Covid-19 first emerged in South Africa, how people of Asian descent and people who travelled were met with anger and violence. I witnessed a physical fight in a store where an individual was furious because someone of a different race touched her. This was how people with HIV were treated at first; black people and homosexual individuals in particular were treated like dirt and people did not want to live with them.


Covid-19 is transmitted through droplets (coughing and sneezing) from an infected person and HIV is transmitted through unprotected sex, blood contact and from mother to child. This makes Covid-19 much more contagious than HIV, you can contract Covid-19 just by being in the same space with an infected person if you do not wear necessary protective gear like a mask. It is harder to contract HIV because you need more intimate contact, like unprotected sexual intercourse.

Both HIV and Covid-19 can be asymptomatic in some people, especially at first. And in the acute stage (just after the person has been infected) both HIV and Covid-19 can present with flu-like symptoms.

What have I learned from Covid-19 and HIV so far?

  • No human being (and no race) is immune from contracting these viruses if prevention measures are not taken.
  • Providing and involving the community with information helps to reduce or stop the spread of these viruses.
  • Fake news creates unnecessary panic.
  • Scammers always take advantage of any epidemic e.g. they impersonate health care workers, or they push fake cures.

In conclusion I feel that while HIV has taken lives over many years, Covid-19 has taken lives across the world in a very short space of time. Only time will tell what the impact of this will be.