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Kenyan Health Workers Manage COVID-19, HIV In Nairobi

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Kenya's capital, Nairobi, coronavirus is not the only worry. With high HIV rates, it is important that patients stay on their medications. Here's more from NPR's Eyder Peralta.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I meet Jane Njoki Peris in front of a maternity clinic in one of Nairobi's big slums. We settled under a tree just outside the pharmacy.

JANE NJOKI PERIS: Here?

PERALTA: This is OK.

PERIS: OK.

PERALTA: Peris works for mothers2mothers, an NGO that pairs HIV-positive health workers with HIV-positive moms. She was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. She was working as a waitress at the National Theatre when she developed cryptococcal meningitis. Her supervisor came to visit her at the hospital and picked up her medical file.

PERIS: So he pulled the file. And he learned about my HIV status.

PERALTA: That moment changed her life. She got better. But when she returned to work, she was ostracized.

PERIS: They gave me my cup. They gave me a packet of milk. They gave me a half-bread. They told me that it has been decided - go and be taking your tea on your own.

PERALTA: Eventually, they pushed her out. She was broke when her daughter made the grades to enroll in an expensive national school.

PERIS: By this time, I had, let's say, like, $3 in my pocket.

PERALTA: She cobbled together donated clothes. She had to borrow, but her daughter went to school. She says the coronavirus pandemic has brought back all of those memories.

PERIS: The way that I see the COVID, it's like how we started the HIV, how we were being stigmatized, how we were being isolated.

PERALTA: We get up. And we walk out of the maternity clinic yard into the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

PERALTA: It's full of midrise tenement buildings carelessly built, draped with lines of laundry. Kids run up to Peris with their palms out.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Non-English language spoken).

PERIS: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: She pulls out hand sanitizer from her pocket and squirts a little on each of their hands. This is part of her job these days, educating the community on hygiene and mask-wearing as she goes out to see clients.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

PERALTA: Right now, she's on her way to see Eunice (ph) and her 4-month-old baby. Peris walks through the narrow hallways of one of the buildings.

PERIS: (Non-English language spoken).

EUNICE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: There's no door, just a bedsheet hung at the opening. Peris enters the room and counts the pills to make sure Eunice is taking her antiretrovirals. It's important so she can keep breastfeeding safely and so her immune system is not compromised in case of a coronavirus infection. She asks Eunice how she's doing.

EUNICE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Eunice says she's scared that when she goes out, she could bring the virus to her three kids. And also, she says, like many during this lockdown, her partner has lost his job. So sometimes, they are going to bed hungry.

(Non-English language spoken).

PERIS: (Non-English language spoken).

EUNICE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERIS: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Peris comforts her, telling Eunice all of this will get better. She says goodbye and steps outside.

I imagine it's hard to give people hope all the time.

PERIS: It isn't hard.

PERALTA: She always thinks back to her own life when she slept hungry.

PERIS: So I have been pass through whatever they're being passing through.

PERALTA: And when you say it gets better...

PERIS: Yeah. It will get...

PERALTA: ...You mean it?

PERIS: I mean it. I mean it, yeah. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. It will get better.

PERALTA: The antiretrovirals brought Peris back from the brink of death. She even found a job that would hire her with HIV. And the daughter she struggled to educate is now a nurse.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "WE WELCOME TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.