August 10, 2008
The list of incredible people there included every one of the activists, and many other people too, including Stephen Lewis (former Special UN Envoy to AIDS in Africa) and Jim Kim (former Director of the WHO's HIV/AIDS unit). SGAC has worked with both of these people who are powerful voices in the fight against this pandemic. And then of course there were people like Mark Dybul, the present US Global AIDS Coordinator who has, in my opinion (and that of many HIV/AIDS activists) not been the greatest champion of effective HIV prevention policies. Of course, that is part of what made this such an interesting opportunity: to see and hear the main voices who work on HIV/AIDS, especially the ones that I think have flawed policies. In fact, this is where the activist's role comes in: our job at the IAC was to make the people with the power to give us what we want -- comprehensive sex education, universal access to life-saving medication and more healthcare workers to name a few. We accomplished this through a busy schedule of actions.
On Wednesday a group of us conducted an action on Abbott Laboratories and their AIDS drug Kaletra in Colombia. In July, NGOs in Colombia sent a request to the Colombian government to issue a compulsory license for Kaletra; this came after their request to Abbott to voluntary license the drug. So far, Abbott has not replied to the request, and it is unclear which direction the Colombian government will take. In order to draw attention to this, we staged a "tug-of-war" with someone playing the role of an "Official Representative of Abbott" and the people on the other side of the rope representing individuals waiting for the drug. This served as one of many different creative protest around various issues -- including lack of health care workers in the Global South, failed US policies on HIV/AIDS, and the lack of comprehensive sex education within the US PEPFAR -- and I hope that you will check out the entries from others at the conference to learn more about what protests happened at the IAC.
One large question that the IAC precipitated for me, though -- and that I am still grappling with -- is the role that activists have in the conference. To begin with, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at the relative freedom people are given to protest, so long as a few rules are observed. There is a general understanding that the activists are going to make noise, and that they must be allowed the opportunity to so do. Yet seeing Roche pharmaceutical company's name plastered on our IAC messenger bags and rain jackets, presented me with the reality that this is a big international conference. To what extent, I pondered, were we merely being placated? Did people -- the people at the pharma booths, the US Government Response to AIDS booth -- the people with the power -- actually listen or give a darn about our chanting and signs?
Moreover, I was confronted with the difficult question of the precarious and often confusing line between standing in solidarity with people from outside of the US and speaking on behalf of people. I think that all of the US AIDS activists at the IAC tried to be very conscious of this predicament, and generally we do a decent job of standing in solidarity with people. But there were several points in the conference when I felt like we weren't necessarily doing this; and I think that this is a constant challenge that I must be acutely aware of.
In the end, though, I think that the fact that the IAC brought together so many people from all over the globe is a hopeful and positive thing. There is a sticker that I saw at the conference that says something along the lines of, "AIDS is proof positive that injustice exists." I think that sums up my sentiments quite succinctly. We will not change the face of this pandemic until we change the underlying, structural inequalities that have allowed it to flourish. As SGAC's missions statement reads, "We must confront the underlying causes of the AIDS plague -- poverty, inequalities of race, gender, and class, sexual stigmas, and a politics that allows us to deny our responsibilities to and for each other." Imperfect as our protests might be, that is what we ultimately were all demanding ... and I think that our voices were heard and will continued to be heard -- we have the power to change things. And that is why in the end, the IAC was more amazing than draining, more energizing than exhausting.