More than 150 civil society representatives from 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific joined the first virtual regional consultation on the upcoming United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS.
“Your views are important. We need them, and they really matter for the success of the political declaration,” said Mitch Fifield, Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and one of the two co-facilitators for the high-level meeting process, in his opening remarks. He also spoke about the valuable contributions of the participants to the high-level meeting and the critical role of communities in the HIV response.
The consultation was an opportunity for civil society organization leaders to take stock of the progress made and the challenges facing the HIV response in the region. It fostered cross-sharing of different expectations of the high-level meeting, allowing civil society organization representatives to share what they see as important for inclusion in the political declaration and to collect inputs to be shared with the multistakeholder task force in preparation for the multistakeholder hearing.
Asia and the Pacific has the second largest regional epidemic after Africa, with 300 000 new HIV infections in 2019. Key populations and their partners accounted for an estimated 98% of new HIV infections, and more than one quarter of new HIV infections were among young people (aged 15 to 24 years). At present, in Asia and the Pacific 160 000 people die from AIDS-related illnesses every year because they do not receive life-saving treatment in time, or the quality of care is insufficient. Nearly 2.3 million people living with HIV, or 40%, are not on treatment, signifying a need to increase treatment coverage.
The participants at the consultation stressed that the new political declaration should give prominence to the scale-up of HIV prevention and treatment efforts, including pre-exposure prophylaxis, self-testing, harm reduction services, same-day antiretroviral therapy, multimonth dispensing and comprehensive sexuality education. Strengthening health systems and the integration of HIV services with other health services, such as services for mental health, sexual and reproductive health, and tuberculosis, is seen as a priority for the next five years to ensure that no one is left behind. “To end AIDS, we must ensure universal, free and sustainable access to prevention and treatment services. The political declaration should be built on the last milestones, especially the Declaration on Universal Health Coverage,” said a civil society organization leader.
Community members recognized that policy and legal barriers, including the criminalization of sex work, consensual same-sex sexual relations and drug use, are deterring people living with HIV and key populations from accessing health services and undermining efforts to end AIDS. “Sex work and drug use are not crimes but a part of life for many. This should be strongly stated in the political declaration,” said one participant. Key population leaders made a strong statement about removing harmful laws, policies and practices towards key populations. They highlighted the need to strengthen the legal and policy environment to protect key populations and vulnerable groups from stigma, discrimination and violence.
Current investments in the HIV response in the region reflect inadequate HIV financing, particularly for key population programming. Civil society organization leaders agreed that to ensure the sustainability of HIV programmes, increased political commitment for domestic funding and financing for communities and key populations programmes are critical. “Investments in HIV must be anchored on the principles of equity, social justice and accountability. These should include investments to support people-centred approaches to health service delivery where services are differentiated but integrated,” said another community representative.
The participants also considered the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities in the region. The diversion of resources and health workers to respond to the more immediate COVID-19 pandemic presents a real risk, threatening the hard-fought-for gains of the HIV response. “We should ensure that the focus on HIV remains strong while dealing with COVID-19, and regular HIV services and uninterrupted supply of antiretroviral therapy should be guaranteed,” said a community leader. Communities also stressed the importance of a new political declaration that considers how COVID-19 has impacted community-led responses to HIV. “There should be financial commitments, a crisis fund or financial safety networks for key populations because they suffered immensely during the COVID-19 pandemic,” one participant said.
Throughout the consultation, the first and foremost demand has been for inclusiveness of key populations in decision-making. “If key populations and people living with HIV are not included in the highest level of decision-making, we will never end inequalities,” said another participant. “Empowerment of communities is integral to strong and resilient health systems. It is important to enable the meaningful engagement of civil society organizations at all levels of programming, including policy development, service delivery, monitoring and evidence-generation,” said another participant.
The main points from the consultation will be synthesized into a regional civil society statement that captures the main priorities and demands of communities for the 2021 political declaration. Likewise, recently, UNAIDS Asia-Pacific launched a social media campaign to encourage key actors, governments, donors, stakeholders, civil society, academics and influencers to make their voices heard in the lead-up to the high-level meeting on the needs and priorities of the HIV response in Asia and the Pacific.
The UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific convened the consultation in collaboration with Sonal Mehta, the Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation South East Asia, and Jules Kim, of the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board nongovernmental organization delegation and Scarlet Alliance, representatives of the multistakeholder task force for the high-level meeting from Asia and the Pacific.