MONTREAL – Activists took to the stage at the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Montreal on Friday morning to protest Canada’s refusal to issue visas to hundreds of delegates, mostly from Africa, and the inequality and lack of funding that lead to new HIV infections.
South African activist Vuyiseka Dubula, former head of the Treatment Action Campaign, told the conference that activists needed to speak on behalf of those who were denied access to the conference:
“TB [HIV co-]infections increase. Our governments are doing very little to combat the opportunistic infection of cryptococcal meningitis. Young women are used in clinical trials to test [HIV] but when these products are ready, they are not accessible,” said Dubula, as the crowd chanted, “Another minute, another death, AIDS is not over.
Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society and co-chair of this year’s conference, said she was “deeply upset” by visa denials that resulted from “global inequality and systemic racism”.
IAS reassesses future conference venues
“The IAS is reassessing to ensure that future conferences remain inclusive events. Those most affected need to be part of the conversation,” Kamarulzaman said.
Canadian International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan pulled out of the opening speech, apparently after hearing about the planned protest.
Expressing her disappointment at the Canadian official’s no-show, UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima paid tribute to the protesters, saying no progress has ever been made on HIV without activism.
“Every two minutes, a teenage girl or young woman contracts HIV, too often from forced sex,” Byanyima told the conference.
“There were 650,000 AIDS-related deaths last year, one life lost every minute despite effective HIV treatment and tools to prevent, detect and treat opportunistic infections,” Byanyima said.
“What we need to do is no mystery. We know this by what we have repeatedly seen succeed in different contexts: shared science, strong services and social solidarity. We can end AIDS by 2030. But the curve will not bend by itself. We have to bring it down, together,” Byanyima said.
Earlier in the week, the UNAIDS director herself was nearly denied permission to board her flight from Geneva to Montreal, only flying after passing a certain number of high-level calls. “Unfair and racist” she declared on Twitter:
I am at Geneva airport, at the boarding gate, boarding pass in hand on my way to #unaids2022, I am almost denied boarding, all the docs are sifted again and again, the calls made…. I board last. Hundreds of people in the South have been denied visas and will not participate #UNAIDS2022
— Winnie Byanyima (@Winnie_Byanyima) July 26, 2022
The conference takes place at a difficult time in the fight against HIV, with an important slowdown in progress against the pandemic – partly because of COVID-19.
Funding for HIV from bilateral donors other than the United States has fallen by 57% over the past decade, according to the UNAIDS Global AIDS Update, In danger.
Addressing the cooling of global donor support for HIV, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said the disease was still top of mind for the 28 million people on ARV treatment and those at risk of infection.
“We’re losing sleep over the 10 million people who aren’t on treatment. We haven’t reached our destination yet. It’s time to get back on the bus,” said Bekker, an infectious disease expert and director of the center. Desmond Tutu Health Center in South Africa.
” Hurry up. If we don’t re-engage and apply all of our science, we will set back and lose all the huge investment in HIV of the last 40 years,” she warned.
More than five million babies born without HIV
Dr. John Nkengasong, former head of Africa CDC and new head of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), said 5.5 million babies have been born HIV-free thanks to PEPFAR.
“This is an incredible milestone for our program and for the next generation,” Nkengasong said, but warned that without the replenishment of the “war chest” to fight HIV, it would be hard to hold hope.
In September, US President Joe Biden will host the Global Fund ceremony Seventh Replenishment with the aim of raising at least $18 billion to fund the next three years of Global Fund partnership activities.
“Successfully raising these funds is a matter of life and death. With $18 billion, we could save at least 20 million lives in just three years and cut the annual number of deaths from HIV, TB and malaria by nearly two-thirds,” said the Fund’s Executive Director. World, Peter Sands.
“We would also make everyone in the world safer from future infectious disease threats, by strengthening health and community systems and making them more inclusive and resilient.
More than 9,500 in-person attendees and nearly 2,000 virtual attendees are registered to attend the all-hybrid AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conferencewhich ends August 2.
Image credits: Jordi Ruiz Cirera/IAS, Steve Forrest/Worker Photos/IAS.
Fight the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the Global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connects the dots between regional realities and major global debates, with evidence-based, open-access information and analysis. To make a personal or organizational contribution, click here on PayPal.