The COVID-19 pandemic has affected sexual health in Saskatoon by increasing the pre-existing stigma surrounding sex and intimacy, according to local sexual health employees.
Saskatoon Sexual Health and OUTSaskatoon aim to shed a positive light on an often stigmatized topic, sexual health, by providing support and resources for sexually transmitted infection testing during the pandemic.
Natalya Mason, education and outreach coordinator at Saskatoon Sexual Health, says that the pandemic brought an “element of shame” to talking about sexual health.
“There haven’t been many considerations for people who maybe aren’t in a long-term committed relationship,” Mason said. “I think that sometimes that’s making people feel a little bit more shy or awkward about coming in to get tested because they don’t want to get shamed for their behaviour.”
Delilah Kamuhanda, sexual health coordinator of OUTSaskatoon, says that even during this unprecedented time, people must get tested.
“COVID is what’s on everyone’s mind, as it should be, but it is important to take care of our overall health even in these uncertain times,” Kamuhanda said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada conducted surveys in November and December to better understand the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on delivery of services related to sexually transmitted and blood-born infection prevention.
The results showed that approximately 21 percent of service providers in Canada experienced a decreased ability to provide support for people suffering from HIV or Hep C. The survey also showed that two out of every three sexual health providers in the country had a decreased number of people coming infor STBBI-related services.
As for Saskatoon, Mason says they had a decrease in services at the beginning of the pandemic because the Saskatchewan Health Authority had to “reprioritize and redistribute” their resources for COVID-19 testing.
“They actually stopped accepting samples for gonorrhea and chlamydia so for the first few months of the pandemic you actually weren’t able to get tested for those infections,” Mason said. “That’s going to have a really significant impact on the population in the future.”
The labs have now returned to full capacity in terms of testing, alongside providing a wide range of availability of other resources such as free condoms, dental dams and lubes.
Sexual health is a pivotal part of human health. Most people are well aware of the importance of physical and mental health, but not everyone prioritizes their sexual health. Regardless, Kamuhanda says people “should still be treated” and not be ashamed.
Mason says that being empathetic and normalizing healthy sexual behaviours is important to ensure people are getting tested for STIs. As a part of the solution, it is important that the government’s recovery plan takes into account that “sexual health is critical to overall well-being” especially with Saskatchewan’s high STI rates, says Mason.
She adds that in the upcoming few months, sexual health and reproductive health care services should be taken into consideration in the government’s recovery measures.
As for personal measures, Mason says to check in on your friends.
“A personal initiative people can take includes checking in with the friends, reminding them that they need to take care of themselves, [that] there is a lot of support available for them, and that we are in this together,” Mason said.
Kamuhanda says that the clinic is open for anyone to get tested.
“With the pandemic and restrictions around it, it does add that stigma… [that] acts as a barrier, just like any stigma, to seeking those services,” Kamuhanda says. “There are people who still want to have connections and still want to have sex, and they should still be treated.
More importantly, Mason says that getting tested and practicing a safe sexual health is important, with or without a pandemic.
“When everyone is vaccinated and pandemic is just a memory, we are still going to be dealing with really high STI rates in Saskatchewan,” Mason said.
The Saskatoon Sexual Health clinic is open during regular business hours and you can book an online appointment on their website.
Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor