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Interview:  Bangkok AIDS Conference

Science Reporter Jon Cohen: Bangkok Notebook    

                                                                        see all of his interviews

Sunday  July 12, 2004

Science magazine correspondent Jon Cohen talks to Jackie Judd about
the beginning of the International AIDS Conference, including an
opening ceremony that did not go as planned

JACKIE JUDD: Jon Cohen of Science magazine, thanks for
joining us for what will be a weeklong series of interviews.
This is our first so let’s start at the beginning. This is your
10th International AIDS conference. You attended the opening
ceremonies. You’ve said they were shocking. In what way?

JON COHEN: Well, I’ve seen 9 other opening ceremonies
and typically the crowd of people that comes into the hall
largely is there at the end. This is 11,000 people into this
hall and they’re all around the same size. And it’s a quite big
spectacle, but there were a few hundred people left in the room
by the time the last speaker spoke and they cut 2 of the
speakers who were on the program. The world leaders who spoke,
including Kofi Annan had left in midstream of the ceremony.
They just walked out, including Richard Gere and Miss Universe
who attracted so much attention as they entered the hall with
the Klieg lights on them, and then it just evaporated and
started to fall apart. My heart really went out for the
speakers and for the people who had spent a few years

JACKIE JUDD: Right. Why did it happen and what
significance do you take from it?

JON COHEN: I think part of the reason it happened to be
fair is they started the session at 7 at night. People are
hungry. They just want to go out and see their friends, but
part of the reason it happened was because people followed the
lead of the leaders who left. I saw the audience dwindle
dramatically after the big leaders walked out. I don’t know why
the big leaders left and I think it’s a worthy question to ask
them. I thought it was disrespectful and I thought it was
certainly disrespectful to the other speakers who had yet to
speak. We’re here to attend a conference and this was the
opening of the meeting.

JACKIE JUDD: Beyond it being rude, significance?

JON COHEN: Well, I think it does have a symbolism. The
challenge right now in the whole world of HIV and AIDS is to
commit to action, long-term commitment. Getting treatment to
people is a start, but continuing to get the treatment to
people is the real challenge. It’s not just getting drugs into
people for a year, it’s doing it for their lives. And so I saw
this symbolic moment of the leaders didn’t even have the
commitment to stay through the ceremony and people did follow
the leaders. So I was just astonished. I looked at this and I
was talking to the people next to me and they started to leave.
And I said, well, I’m going to stick it out. I couldn’t leave.
I became mesmerized by watching it fall apart.

JACKIE JUDD: The other thing that’s not happening here
as well is the Prime Minister of Thailand had invited about
half a dozen heads of state. All but one refused, did not come.
The one being the President of Uganda, Museveni. Is the lack of
the heads of state being here important or again, does that go
back to symbolism?

JON COHEN: To be fair to the people, I don’t know why
they didn’t go to their invited meeting. They could have very
solid reasons for not attending, but the symbolism does matter.
This conference isn’t strictly a meeting for scientists to
exchange information, this is the whole community of people who
are concerned about HIV/AIDS and they make the inclusion of
world leaders a centerpiece of the meeting. Because really
stopping HIV requires leadership at the highest levels, that’s
the point that everyone keeps making about Thailand. They had a
condom promotion program from the highest levels. They make it
about Uganda and what President Museveni had done there because
of his leadership. So when you don’t see everybody working
together as leaders, it does raise questions. I think it is a
serious issue.

JACKIE JUDD: The other question that is raised, you
can’t be in this media center without hearing it time and again
is the fact that the U.S. delegation is so much smaller this
time than the last time. Again, does it matter in the sense of
real science? Is there still going to be the exchange of ideas,
the science being introduced to scientists from other parts of
the world?

JON COHEN: Well, the U.S. delegation that didn’t come
is the delegation that works for the Department of Health and
Human Services.

JACKIE JUDD: They came, but in smaller numbers.

JON COHEN: In smaller numbers, but it doesn’t say
anything about the academics in the U.S. who certainly don’t
follow the lead of the Department of Health and Human Services
or the Bush Administration. But again, it’s a symbolic problem.
The NIH funds more AIDS research than any single entity on
earth and for the NIH to not seriously send its top people here
to present their top finding, certainly sends a message to the
world. And indeed, the message from the Secretary of Health and
Human Services was explicit, that it’s not that important of a
meeting. To say that the U.S. can’t afford to send the people
is what has led many people to scratch their heads, given that
this is an international meeting. People are highly critical of
the U.S. internationally right now.

JACKIE JUDD: The analogy you were making before we
started this interview was it’s like holding a company retreat
and some key employees not showing up. So that in terms of
actual content you think there may be some gaps?

JON COHEN: Yeah, there certainly are gaps and I know
from speaking to NIH scientists who are here who know the
specific things that aren’t here, that there were some good
presentations that didn’t make it here. In the scheme of things
that to me isn’t as important as the other point, which is for
those of us who have been coming to these meetings for years
and years and years it is kind of a big family. It is kind of a
retreat for all of the people who are concerned, and to not
have some key participants come to that retreat leaves a sense
of, oh, we’re not all in this together? And this meeting tries
to foster this Kumbaya thing where we’re all kind of rocking
and at the end of the day the world is a fractured place. There
are rich countries. There are poor countries. There are
fractures in all sorts of directions that you see between Asia,
Africa, the U.S. I mean you see these things here. This is
everything here and so when you see a leading player, a rich
player, say, we don’t think it’s worth it. It sends waves
through the whole community.

JACKIE JUDD: And I should add thought that Ambassador
Randall Tobias, the President’s AIDS Czar, was asked some of
these same questions yesterday and he said that the U.S.
delegation was large enough that there was no science missing.
That it was sufficient. But let’s move on for a moment. For
somebody who’s never been to a conference, for some of the
folks watching this on the web, describe what the atmospherics
are like.

JON COHEN: It’s like you’re on another planet. I mean
the ingredients here are bizarre. It’s kind of everything and
anything. It’s part serious, hard-core science. It’s part
theater, circus. It’s part party time. It’s community people
who have no voice, typically, in their own homes having a voice
here to get on a stage, whether you’re speaking about somebody
who is a transsexual or an injecting drug user. The opening
ceremony last night when everyone walked out, they didn’t hear
an injecting drug user in Thailand who gave a speech
criticizing his government. Where else do you see that on a
stage like that? It just doesn’t happen. So it’s a very special
planet and when I come into orbit here and I get on this
planet, I’m just wide eyed the entire week because everywhere
you turn there’s something you’ve never seen before. And
there’s no end to it. You can’t possibly take it all in. It’s
absolutely overwhelming.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay. Well we will revisit the planet
tomorrow in our next interview with Jon Cohen of Science
magazine. Thank you.


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   see  Opening Ceremony Speech and agenda


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