The early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were “plagued by confusion, fear, isolation, and discrimination” against those infected or at high risk, the President of the UN General Assembly reminded a commemorative meeting on Tuesday marking World AIDS Day – 40 years after the first cases were reported.
Under the theme End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics, Abdulla Shahid underscored a connection between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, pointing out that both exacerbate inequalities and impact people, “particularly in terms of access to treatment and health services”.
Moreover, COVID and the HIV epidemic not only impact the health of individuals, but together have also “impacted households, communities, and the development and economic growth of nations”, he continued.
“We must reinforce international cooperation and solidarity in the fight against HIV, against COVID-19, and on any public health issue that protects our people”, he said.
‘Responsibility to act’
Two decades since the landmark General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS – the first ever on a health issue – HIV/AIDS has become a preventable and treatable disease.
The Assembly President attested to the importance of learning from mistakes made then, such as hiding diagnoses due to social stigma, misinformation on prevention or treatment, and policymakers who delayed action.
“This meeting is an opportunity to discuss how the experience of fighting against HIV/AIDS can inform and guide effective, human rights sensitive, and people-centered responses to infectious diseases, such as COVID-19”, said Mr. Shahid. “We have a responsibility to act”.
“I call on all stakeholders to protect the human rights of all and ensure access to health services without stigma and discrimination”.
Move to close equity gap
While human ingenuity has delivered effective vaccines for COVID-19 in record time, the Assembly President highlighted that as more variants arise, the world must move quickly to “close the gap in access and ensure vaccine equity”.
“I am convening a High-level Meeting on Universal access to vaccines on 13 January next year, as an opportunity to commit to tackle inequalities and ensure equal and fair access to treatment for all, without discrimination”, he informed the meeting.
And as misinformation had once plagued HIV/AIDS, today it threatens progress in combatting COVID-19.
“We must resort to all available communication tools to better address health and social issues with a human rights perspective”, said Mr. Sahid.
Four decades later
This year is also the 25th anniversary of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which united entities across the UN system to mobilize countries and communities globally to take action in combatting HIV/AIDS.
“For four decades the programme has provided global leadership, promoted policy consensus, strengthened the capacity of national Governments to develop comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategies and of the UN system to monitor implementation”, said ECOSOC President Collen Kelapile.
“UNAIDS has been instrumental in mobilizing political commitment and social action to prevent and respond to HIV/AIDS”.
He said the fight against HIV/AIDS serves as a successful example of political leadership and commitment, joint action in the face of a global crises, and the importance of effective multilateralism.
Mr. Kelapile noted that earlier this year, the Assembly adopted a visionary Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, outlining an ambitious pathway for ending inequalities and getting on track to end AIDS by 2030.
“Without the inequality-fighting approach we need to end AIDS, the world would also struggle to end the #COVID19 pandemic and would remain unprepared for future pandemics. That would be profoundly dangerous for us all,” says @Winnie_Byanyima on her #WorldAIDSDay statement. pic.twitter.com/iYtlMS5aLF
— UNAIDS (@UNAIDS) November 30, 2021
“I wish to reaffirm ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies’ support to the full implementation of the Political Declaration and its readiness to play a meaningful role in contributing to a world without AIDS”.
Not ‘bending the curve’ fast enough
UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima issued a “stark warning” in her virtual message that AIDS remains a pandemic, saying, “the red light is flashing and only by moving fast to end the inequalities that drive the pandemic can we overcome it”.
“Without the inequality-fighting approach we need to end AIDS, the world would also struggle to end the COVID-19 pandemic and would remain unprepared for the pandemics of the future”, she warned, which she added “would be profoundly dangerous for us all”.
Ms. Byanyima noted that amidst the raging COVID-19 crisis, progress in combatting AIDS is under even greater strain – disrupting HIV prevention and treatment services, schooling, violence prevention programmes and more.
“On our current trajectory, we aren’t bending the curve fast enough and risk an AIDS pandemic lasting decades”, she cautioned, urging more momentum on Member States-agreed concrete actions to address the inequalities that are driving HIV.
By taking on the inequalities that hold back progress, she maintained that “we can deliver on the promise to end AIDS by 2030”.
“It is in our hands”, said the UNAIDS chief. “Every minute that passes, we are losing a precious life to AIDS. We don’t have time. End inequalities. End AIDS. End pandemics”.
Speaking via video conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to United States President Biden, drew lessons from COVID-19 as to “just how quickly” medical public health interventions can be “developed, tested and produced when financial investment is substantial and sustained”, when Governments and the private sector work together.
“Moving forward, we must find ways to maintain this partnership for the robust commitment to develop accessible and widely available drugs, vaccines and other medical countermeasures to fight all infectious diseases”, said Dr. Fauci.