Can activists gathering in Washington, DC, for the International AIDS Conference get Obama and the world to listen?
Starting this Sunday in Washington, an estimated 20,000 people will convene to “turn the tide” of the AIDS pandemic, at the International AIDS Conference, the largest global gathering devoted to HIV/AIDS. For the first time in twenty-two years, the AIDS conference returns to the United States, thanks in significant part to President Obama’s lifting the HIV travel ban, which had prohibited people living with HIV/AIDS from entering the United States since 1987. Activists are mobilizing in the thousands to ensure that the concerns of people most impacted by HIV/AIDS are not sidelined.
The International AIDS Conference is a bit of a circus, or perhaps multiple rings of competing circuses. High-level policy makers with the power to set the global AIDS agenda, along with drug manufacturers and doctors, join the ranks of community health workers and grassroots activists. On stage and in the hallways, there will be Gateses (Bill and Melinda, whose foundation is a major AIDS funder worldwide), sometimes Clintons and, this year, Bushes (Laura and W.). There are pleasant swarms of consultants and wonks, bright banners and loud marches. Walking through the Global Village, the free satellite conference set up alongside the pricey formal conference, delegates are as likely to find sex educators demonstrating receptive (sometimes called female) condoms as they are to cross paths with United Nations staff. In a sense, all are equal in this space, but just for one week every two years, and even then, not really.
To begin with, far too few people affected by HIV/AIDS will ever make it the conference. Their absence means all the talk of new drugs, new funding and new policy will be disconnected from the experience of those living with HIV/AIDS. Though it’s now possible for people living with HIV/AIDS to legally visit the United States, two of the key communities recognized by UNAIDS as most impacted by HIV/AIDS are still categorically denied entrance to the United States: sex workers and drug users.
In bringing the conference to the United States, said Jonathan Cohen, deputy director of the Open Society Public Health Program, “many, many people saw an opportunity, from a domestic HIV point of view, and from a point of view of maintaining the extensive bipartisan support for HIV funding. But one got the distinct sense that the optimism and sense of opportunity that accompanied the decision to have the conference in Washington vastly overwhelmed any ethical qualms about systemically excluding sex workers and drug users.”
“I dreamed of coming to Washington to speak at AIDS 2012,” wrote Irina Teplinskaya, an advocate for the health and human rights of drug users, who is currently living in the Ukraine. “I had a message to deliver to those who have the financial and political means to turn the tide of the epidemic. I wanted to speak up because Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA)—the region where I live—is the only region in the world where HIV rates continue to rise while available resources for HIV prevention continue to shrink.”