TORONTO AIDS CONFERENCE  2006 

Special session:
25 Years of AIDS : Reflecting Back and Looking Forward

Wednesday, 16 August 2006
12:45 - 13:45
Session Room 1

Speech by Gregg Gonsalves,


Peter Piot told the New York Times earlier this year that "2005 was the
least bad year in the history of the AIDS epidemic."

But I am telling you today that we are losing the struggle against this
disease.

5 million new infections last year, and 3 million dead, among them half a
million children gone. It was the worst year yet for those weíve lost.

I shan't offer attempt a comprehensive analysis of 25 years of HIV/AIDS in
seven minutes and thus I will make three brief points hopefully to start a
conversation rather than end one. The first is about the often misdirected
energies and efforts, and the paralysing effects, of the international AIDS
bureaucracy; the second is the familiar but indispensable point that AIDS is
both a consequence and a symptom of wide and deep global injustice; the
third is to take issue with some dear colleagues, and others I respect,
about the push to 're-medicalise' AIDS and why we must be careful in this
regard not to cast AIDS as yet another intractable social ill, drain it of
political significance and give up the fight when we really need to be
taking the struggle to the next level.

1. First, go pick up Alex de Waalís Famine Crimes. His description of how
the humanitarian aid industry has worsened and perpetuated famines,
particularly in Africa, provides an analytical framework through which we
need to interrogate our work on AIDS. I talked at length about this in
Bangkok two years ago, and donít have the time to elaborate today and offer
examples to illustrate these points. The bottom line? Weíve create a vast
infrastructure that is:

* Largely unaccountable;
* Self-justifying, pursuing organizational survival and expansion;
* Privileging the policy preoccupations of the major industrialized countries;
* Prvileging generalized, international responsibility instead of specific, local political accountability
* Privileging technical skill and experience over local knowledge;
* Promoting ìdevelopmentî or assistance instead of social change.

No wonder things arenít getting better. Weíve created a system designed to
fail. Yet in the margins of this system, there remain men and women, yes,
heroes for some of us, who are largely forgotten, unknown, ignored or
reviled by those who make this machine run. Itís not Bill Gates or Bill
Clinton who have made a difference in this epidemic despite their welcome to
this meeting as some sort of royalty--the seduction of the money and power
they represent have blinded us to what theyíve really delivered. The real
heroes are people like Christopher Moraka, Gugu Dhalmini, Ashok Pillai,
Dasha Ocheret, Mandla Majoli, Fanny Ann Eddy, Sou Southeavy, Paul
Kasonkomona, Thomas Cai, Loon Gangte, Chris Green, Frika Chia Iskandar,
Rolake Nwagwu, Othman Mellouk, Oswaldo Rada, Banta Leimapokpam, Jay Lipner,
John Mourdant, Tapiwa Kujinga, Suzana Murni, Dietmar Bolle, Arne Husdal,
Richard Rector, Gennady Roschupkin, Shona Schonning, Nikolai Nedzelskii,
Susan Paxton, Jeanni Mulenga, Greg Gray, Kamalika Abeyrante, Paul
Roozenburg, Leena Menghaney, Daniel Marguari, Lady Zambrano, John Campbell,
Joseph Scheich, Rajiv Kafle, Michael Callen, Scott Slutsky, Lillian Mworeko,
Sunil Pant, Jay Lipner, Paisan Suwannawong, Grace Sedio, Andy Zysman, all of
whom have changed and some who are still changing history, often at great
personal risk, while you were looking elsewhere and took no notice.

2. Second, we need to reinscribe the fight against AIDS as part of a larger
movement for social and economic justice. Our heroes knew and know this.
Itís no surprise that where we find HIV/AIDS, we often find other infectious
and chronic diseases, including TB, diabetes, obesity, heart disease,
asthma, mental illness and social epidemics of crime, violence and poverty.
Unless we start looking at the factors, the root causes that drive health
disparities-in other words, why some of us get sick and some of us donít-
broadly within our communities, we will be always treating one illness,
while the ìpatientî dies of another. Itís also no coincidence that these
multiple epidemics exist among marginalized communities across the globe,
among the poor, women, drug users, sex workers, gay men, prisoners,
migrants-the social, economic and political policies that create this
marginalization in the first place also push us into the path of oncoming
epidemics. Yet, we continue to place our hopes in prevention programs that
narrowly construct risk around individual behavior or in some new technology
that will save us. Even those who profess to be deeply concerned about HIV
prevention like our dear Mr. and Mrs. Gates have little stomach for facing
the structural and environmental factors that are the fuel for this great
fire of an epidemic and watch the flames grow higher because to act on these
issues moves beyond charity and far too close for comfort to them to
politics.

3. Thirdly, we need to re-politicize AIDS. Dear colleagues like Edwin
Cameron and Zackie Achmat in South Africa and those I respect such as Kevin
de Cock at W.H.O. and Tom Frieden in New York City have made the case that
we need to ìde-exceptionalizeî and ìre-medicalizeî AIDS. I agree that HIV
testing must be rethought and that accepting that millions of people live
and die without knowing their status is unacceptable. I support making HIV
testing easier to do in medical settings, integrating sound and
evidence-based public health strategies into our approaches to AIDS and
integrating of HIV/AIDS into strengthened systems of care and prevention of
infectious and chronic disease in general. However, the presumption by
Kevin in particular that we need to abandon a rights-based approach to
HIV/AIDS in order to do so, is frankly reactionary. The calls to
de-exceptionalize AIDS and return it to its proper medical context can
easily become calls to turn us back into patients and victims, passive
actors in this epidemic--no doctor likes patients who talk back and either
do their governments. They can become calls to ignore or downplay the social
and economic aspects of HIV that I referred to above, push AIDS back into
the realm of medicine, where the solutions are only biomedical. They can
become calls to make AIDS as ìunexceptionalî as all the other ills, both
medical and otherwise that affect, our communities, when we should be
claiming health for all and social and economic justice as yes, Kevin, a
human right. I know-itís so unfashionable these days to talk of rights and
particularly then to fight for them as if one really meant it.

AIDS is essentially a crisis of governance, of what governments do and do
not do to and for their people-we have the drugs to treat HIV infection, we
have the tools to confront the risks that drive HIV transmission and prevent
infection itself-what we donít have is national political will necessary to
scale-up our response. We have demanded too little from our leaders, excused
far too much. We all sat politely in Thailand two years ago in the midst of
a war on drug users, we invite Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to meetings when she
should be an international pariah, we allow George Bush to export failed
approaches to HIV prevention to the world while he lets close to 50% of
black, gay men get infected at home, we let Vladimir Putin get away with
blocking access to methadone, we let Miles White of Abbott Laboratories tell
us that $500 for Kaletra is the price of life for people who make less than
a $1 a day, we let Bill Gates fund the abduction of sex workers instead of
programs fighting for their rights, we go to New York for UNGASS and are
told to be grateful by our friends at UNAIDS when countries block any
commitments to specific targets for universal access, to any mention of drug
users, sex workers, gay men and other vulnerable groups, to comprehensive
sex education or the empowerment of girls (by the way, if this is a womenís
epidemic, why do men do most of the talking?). Except for the cries from a
few brave activists, most people in countries around the world affected by
the epidemic have not risen up to hold them to account-to say these are our
rights and these are your obligations. Even well-established political
movements such as the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa consist of
only a few thousand people and struggle for funding and support-how can this
be? Why arenít there millions of people around the world demanding action
or telling their leaders to stand down? Yes, I understand some of us work
in places where this kind of action is difficult or impossible, but itís
possible in more places on the planet than you think. Perhaps we, those of
us with the resources, the ability to change things ourselves or support
this kind of work, have a real inability, a blindness and cannot see what
the epidemic for what it is, a political crisis, or we have made a decision
to do so because complicity with the systems of power that perpetuate and
worsen the epidemic is easier for us. We are at a terrible anti-political
moment right now, where the powers-that-be have taken our rhetoric and told
us that everything is fine-weíre on your side-you can demobilize and leave
the epidemic to us. That is the pernicious message of this conference.
Donít believe a word they say.

It has been the worst year of the epidemic for so many of us. The question
is whether weíre going to stand up and make a promise today as one of my
heroes, the late, great, Vito Russo did back in 1988:

We're so busy putting out fires right now, that we don't have the time to
talk to each other and strategize and plan for the next wave, and the next
day, and next month and the next week and the next year.
And, we're going to have to find the time to do that in the next few months.
And, we have to commit ourselves to doing that. And then, after we kick the
shit out of this disease, we're all going to be alive to kick the shit out
of this system, so that this never happens again.

* * *
Thanks to the following individuals, all much smarter and more eloquent than
me, for commenting on an earlier draft of this speech or for giving me food
for thought as I was writing it: Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Edwin Cameron,
Dan Wohlfeiler, Daniel Wolfe, Joanne Csete, Joseph Amon, Jeff Hoover, Zackie
Achmat, Roderick Wallace, Laurie Garrett, Polly Clayden, Mark Heywood,
Mandla Majoli, Nathan Geffen, Loon Gangte, Jack Lewis, David Barr and Fatima Hassan.


--

Gregg Gonsalves
AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa
c/o AIDS Law Project
101 St. George's Mall, 7th Floor
Cape Town 8000
South Africa
Email: gregg.gonsalves@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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