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COVID-19 and HIV: two very different pandemics but with some similarities

The COVID-19 pandemic which has affected our societies around the world has brought us moments of extraordinary challenge that have tested our collective will. But it has also galvanized us to bring out the best of our collective humanity. With the unpredictable and fluid situation around COVID-19, the world is navigating through an uncertain period with few precedents. Since the beginning of the pandemic, SAP has been supporting our customers, our social sector partners, and our own employees, but also students, professionals and anyone wishing to continue to learn during this challenging time.

For those of us in diversity and inclusion leadership roles, the primary focus has been on employee engagement to ensure that our colleagues remain healthy and safe. We need to continue to contribute to business success but also think about new concerns.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the LGBT+ community? Many organizations have also been focusing on this and most of the findings relate to health and financial related risks. Some key findings are around:

  • The serious implications for the mental health of LGBT+ youth and young adults, since even prior to the pandemic, LGBT+ youth have been found to be at significant increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality, as reported by the Trevor Project. In the U.S., 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT+, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
  • The increased risk for LGBT+ elders due to being less likely than their heterosexual and cisgender peers to reach out to health and aging providers, like senior centers, meal programs, and other programs designed to ensure their health and wellness, because they fear discrimination and harassment, according to the National LGBT Cancer Network.
  • With COVID-19 being a respiratory illness, it has proven to be particularly harmful to smokers and people with asthma. U.S. specific data shows that 37% of LGBT+ adults smoke every day compared to 27% of non-LGBT+ people; and 21% of LGBT+ people have asthma, compared to 14% of non-LGBT+ people, as reported by the Human Rights Campaign.
  • As the world has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and medical care facilities everywhere have become constrained in their abilities to provide critical care. To contend with the flood of COVID-19 hospital patients, surgeries considered “non-essential” have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled in many cases. Among the surgeries deemed “non-essential” or “elective” are gender-affirming surgeries for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, as published by Out & Equal.

The organizations mentioned above have also highlighted the fact that the LGBT+ population has higher rates of HIV, which means a greater number of people in this community may have compromised immune systems, leaving them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. In particular:

What can companies do to support the LGBT+ community during the COVID-19 pandemic?

There a number of things that employers should consider to support the LGBT+ community. Here are some recommendations, most of them extracted or adapted from the Out & Equal guide: “LGBTQ+ Employees and the COVID-19 Pandemic”: 

  • Leverage LGBT+ and Ally Employee Network Groups: many ENG leaders have developed as key players in maintaining the emotional well-being of ENG members during the COVID-19 crisis. Supporting and encouraging ENG leaders to organize and host virtual sessions while also doing remote check-ins to build a safe space for LGBT+ employees to share concerns, voice struggles, and gain assistance from peers.
  • Ensure that your Employee Assistance Programs are prepared to cover the LGBT+ specifics around mental health: While ENG leaders play a key role, as LGBT+ individuals experience disparate impacts in both physical and mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, your programs to support employees in moments of emotional crisis need to cover for their needs. You can also consider providing information on LGBT+ specific mental health resources to your employees.
  • Consider capturing sexual orientation and gender identity in your different D&I-related activities, for example in your inclusion pulse-checks, to understand the specific needs of your LGBT+ colleagues.
  • Offer inclusive domestic partner benefits: Domestic partner benefits that are inclusive of both same and different sex partners ensure that LGBT+ employees have the time they need to care for their partners if they fall sick—especially as LGBT+ individuals have a heightened risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19. Additionally, employers should be aware of the unique family dynamics within the LGBT+ community and accommodate family leave for chosen or diverse family units.
  • Employees living with autoimmune issues such as HIV or AIDS—or employees who reside with, or provide care to, immunocompromised individuals— may need to take additional precautions to avoid infection. Employers should demonstrate flexibility and reasonableness in accommodating individual requests to work remotely to reduce exposure, in addition to taking these concerns and risks to immunocompromised individuals seriously. Employers should also consider driving further awareness campaigns encouraging employees to undertake HIV voluntary screening and working with external health organizations to help eliminate waiting periods for HIV treatment, if applicable in the relevant country.

Out & Equal also recommends that, in order to deepen a sense of inclusion and belonging in this time of crisis, companies should ensure employees living with underlying medical conditions feel supported in bringing their concerns and needs to light. Companies should communicate to staff that those needing certain accommodations as a result of COVID-19 will not be judged or reprimanded. Furthermore, employers and HR staff members should be prepared to provide additional reassurance to employees who are concerned about confidentiality surrounding the disclosure of their medical status. It is particularly important for HR staff members, especially those working in the Health Services organizations, to demonstrate an awareness of the increased risks that COVID-19 poses to those with autoimmune disorders or other underlying conditions.

Until vaccinations are available for both, companies should continue to encourage healthy lifestyles with the necessary preventive measures, support testing, and accommodate and support employees that might be facing COVID-19 or HIV, either themselves or their loved ones.