“I am not one for crying, I am always a strong person,” says 24 year old Rufus Butler***.
However, his entire body shook when he saw the results.
“After I saw the two strokes on the testing kit, I took another test and got the same result.”
Positive. The tests revealed that he was now HIV positive.
Upon receiving the notification of his positive HIV status, Rufus was immediately referred to the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), the country’s largest and longest-serving HIV-focused human rights non-governmental organization. At JASL his life’s journey steered in a different direction. With mixed emotions, he was determined to not allow this virus to define who he was. Describing himself as a happy and perky individual, persevering through prayer, he was not going to give up on life based on his HIV status.
Many Jamaicans have similar stories to Rufus. Currently, there are an estimated 32,000 Jamaicans living with HIV. The prevalence in the general Jamaican population is estimated at 1.4%; however surveys show higher HIV prevalence in key subpopulations such as gay men, transgender people, female sex workers, and prison inmates. Though 85% of the estimated number of persons living with HIV know their status, only 41% are on life saving antiretroviral treatment (ART).
In 2003, under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States established its first efforts to combat HIV globally. In 2009 PEPFAR created a regional HIV prevention and care program in the Caribbean. From the beginning, USAID has been a key USG agency implementing PEPFAR. In Jamaica, USAID provides assistance to JASL to ensure that treatment and care services are provided to targeted populations that are most in need, in order to control the HIV epidemic.
Rufus admits that had it not been for the support of JASL, he would not have made it. “I do not know what I would've done if JASL was not there for me. I probably would have given up and said this is it.”
And with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he considers himself one of the fortunate ones. His daily routine to stay on his treatment and medication was not impacted due to his strong support system within the HIV-positive community. However, unlike Rufus, other members of the community were severely impacted by the pandemic.
Recognizing the need to boost efforts for some of the most vulnerable communities during the COVID pandemic, USAID provided an additional U.S. $600,000 to specifically enhance support to JASL’s services for these populations.
“It was critical as an agency that we provide a robust variety of assistance to support Jamaica’s COVID-19 response, in particular to some of the most vulnerable Jamaicans,” says Jason Fraser, Country Representative for USAID Jamaica. “We provided 1,500 care packages of masks and sanitizers across the country and reached 100,000 vulnerable Jamaicans with messages to increase knowledge of COVID-19 prevention and treatment, support mental health, and fight COVID-19 stigma and discrimination.”
“JASL also helped four NGOs respond to the challenges of the pandemic--positioning them to sustain gains in treatment, care and support of the populations they serve,” he added.
Rufus, a customer service representative and part-time student, aspires one day to be a psychologist. He hopes to teach people living with HIV the importance of self-awareness, self-care, and self-love. This is his advocacy.
“Being HIV-positive has taught me that there is a lot more behind a smile. Learning to love yourself is key. With HIV, at least you have a second chance at life, taking the front seat, steering your life toward making a difference and helping one another,” says Rufus.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, USAID has provided approximately U.S. $7.5 million to support Jamaica's COVID-19 response. In total, the U.S. government has provided more than U.S. $12 million in COVID-related assistance to Jamaica.
***name change for protection of identity
About the Author
Kimberley Weller is the Development Outreach and Communications Specialist for USAID’s Mission in Jamaica.