Opening Ceremony at International AIDS Conference Lukewarm in Its Scope
July 22, 2012
This evening, thousands of International AIDS Conference attendees and delegates packed the Washington Convention Center main hall to hear the opening session of conference. Attendees were dazzled with speakers from all across the world, including UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sibide, President of the World Bank Dr. Jim Kim, Zimbabwean community activist Annah Sango, as well as D.C. Mayor Gray, among a wealth of other speakers.
No one seemed to rouse the crowd more than Annah Sango, who spoke of the need to have people from all backgrounds present at the table in order to truly create a global AIDS free generation, calling for the travel ban against sex workers and drug users to be lifted. Ms. Sango also called for the IAC audience, which included international politicians, delegates, representatives, and AIDS service organizational leaders, to stop debating and fighting over preventative education and services that have been proven to stop the spread of the disease. "Why are we still debating basic HIV education," Ms. Sango asked. "Why can't women fully exercise their sexual reproductive rights? And why are abstinence-based HIV education programs still being promoted and funded?" Ms. Sango closed her speech by telling the audience, "We can end AIDS. We know this. This Tuesday I am marching in the We Can End AIDS Mobilization to fight for the end to the war against women," drawing cheers of approval from Housing Works President and CEO Charles King and Housing Works Director of National Organizing Larry Bryant.
Charles King was also very impressed with Dr. Jim Kim's speech, as he paid tribute to the AIDS activists from the 1980s in the U.S. and abroad. "It was the activists and the communities that devised safer-sex education, distributed condoms, and did outreach to the most afflicted communities. These activists came together in anger, and we need to recapture that power and passion." Dr. Kim went on to state that 150 million people were forced into poverty in the last year because of the cost of health care, and that to truly combat HIV/AIDS, we must also combat poverty.
The opening ceremony did have its uneven moments, however. Mayor Gray's speech drew sharp criticism from the crowd, as he stated that his Administration distributed 5 million male and female condoms all across the city, and no baby in the District had been born HIV+ since 2009. What he failed to note, however, was that D.C. has one of the highest infection rates in the country and one of the longest waiting lists for HOPWA housing as well. Charles King wasn't fooled. "Mayor Gray could have told the truth, or he could have played the tourist line, and he chose to play the tourist line. He never talked about how D.C.'s infection rates are some of the steepest in the country and mimic those rates in South Africa, and he didn't even touch the rates of infection among gay and bisexual men of color in the city. Instead, Mayor Gray chose to sugarcoat the facts and pat himself on the back."
King also took issue with the closing remarks by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who applauded the Obama Administration for its National AIDS Strategy and the new move to use treatment as prevention. "What's missing from these speeches is that on a global level, to get enough people on treatment to make a difference, we need people to get on these treatments as soon as they're diagnosed, not when their t-cell counts reach a pre-determined level as decided by politicians." Still, he did see inklings of hope at the opening, noting the number of speakers that said to truly end the epidemic, we must treat stigma as wholly as we treat the body. King notes, "HIV is just a virus. But it's a virus that is fueled by social and economic injustices." With the official first day of the conference tomorrow, we will continue to hope for a solution and road map that considers the physiology of the disease just as much as its psychology.
This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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