AIDS Conference Activists Protest ‘Systemic Racism’ Behind Canadian Visa Denials to African Delegates
24th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2022), Montreal, Canada. 
Opening Session

MONTREAL – Activists took over the stage at the opening of the International AIDS conference in Montreal on Friday morning to protest Canada’s denial of visas to hundreds of delegates, primarily from Africa, and the inequality and lack of funding that is driving 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 are increasing. Our governments do very little to address the opportunistic infection cryptococcal meningitis.  Young women are used in clinical trials to test [HIV] products 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 that she was “deeply upset” about the visa denials that were a result of “global inequality and systemic racism”.

IAS re-evaluating future conference venues

“IAS is re-evaluating to ensure that future conferences remain inclusive events. Those most affected must be part of the conversation,” said Kamarulzaman.

Canada’s Minister of International Development, Harjit Sajjan, withdrew from speaking at the opening, 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 protestors, saying that no progress had ever been made in HIV without activism.

“Every two minutes an adolescent girl or young woman acquires HIV, too often from a sexual act that was forced on her,” Byanyima told the conference.

“There were 650,000 AIDS-related deaths last year, a 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 not a mystery. We know it from what we’ve repeatedly seen succeed across different contexts: shared science, strong services and social solidarity. We can end AIDS by 2030. But the curve will not bend itself. We have to pull it down, together, ” Byanyima said. 

Earlier in the week, the UNAIDS director herself was almost refused permission to board her flight from Geneva to Montreal, making her flight only after she placed a number of high-level calls.  “Unjust and racist” she declared on Twitter: 

Donor retreat

South African AIDS activist Vuyiseka Dubula at AIDS Conference in Montreal, Canada.

The conference takes place at a difficult time in the battle against HIV, with a substantial slowdown in progress against the pandemic – in part because of COVID-19.

HIV funds from bilateral donors other than the US plummeted by 57% over the last decade, according to the UNAIDS Global AIDS update, In Danger.

Addressing the cooling of global donor support for HIV, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said that the disease was still uppermost in the minds of the 28 million people on ARV treatment and those at risk of infection.

“We lose sleep over the 10 million people not on treatment. We have not reached our destination yet. It’s time to get back on the bus,” said Bekker, an infectious disease expert and Director of the Desmond Tutu Health Centre in South Africa.

“The time is running out. If we do not re-engage, and apply our all the science we will backslide and lose all the considerable investment in HIV of the past 40 years,” she warned.

Over Five Million Babies born HIV-free 

Dr John Nkengasong, former head of Africa CDC and the newly-appointed head of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), said that 5.5 million babies have been born HIV-free as a result of PEPFAR.

“This is an incredible milestone for our programme 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 keep hope alive.

This September, US President Joe Biden will host the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment with the aim of raising at least $18 billion to fund the next three years of the Global Fund partnership’s activities.

“Success in raising those funds is a matter of life and death. With $18 billion we could save at least 20 million lives over just three years and cut the annual death toll from HIV, TB and malaria by almost two-thirds,” said Global Fund executive director 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 and nearly 2,000 virtual participants are registered to attend the fully hybrid AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, which ends on 2 August.

Image Credits: Jordi Ruiz Cirera/IAS, Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos/IAS.

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