8 Moments That Fired Us Up at AIDS 2016

Last week, Health GAP was in South Africa for the bi-annual International AIDS Conference. AIDS 2016 was special. After 16 years, the conference returned to South Africa, a country with the world’s largest HIV epidemic, and to Durban, a city where 16 years ago activists catalyzed a sea-change in the world’s response to the AIDS epidemic in the Global South. One week later, we’re still talking about the moments from the International AIDS Conference that left us feeling inspired to continue our work in the fight for universal access to HIV treatment, prevention and care.


Throughout the week, the Health GAP team was hard at work. We partnered with South African allies to organize the march for treatment for all on the opening day of the conference and a rally targeting the Indian government later that week. We facilitated daily global activist action planning meetings. We joined allies in two activist zaps targeting pharmaceutical company booths, painting banners, arranging props and participating in stunts. We hosted two press conferences, an official satellite session, and a full-day activist workshop.  And, members of our team presented more than 20 times on panel discussions, at side-events, in plenaries, or in abstract sessions.

Here are 8 moments from #AIDS2016 that left us feeling fired up and hopeful about the transformative effects of activist power:

#1. Thousands of people living with HIV and their allies marching through the streets of Durban to demand #Treatment4All


Over half of people living with HIV don’t have access to the treatment they need. And in South Africa alone, 440 people die of AIDS every day. World leaders have committed to ending AIDS as a pandemic by 2030, yet more than half of all people living with HIV around the world are still without lifesaving treatment. On the opening day of the conference, over 7000 activists from across South Africa and around the world joined the Treatment Action CampaignSection 27 and Health GAP as we marched through the streets of Durban. Together we demanded that world leaders deliver on their promise to end the epidemic by ensuring access to treatment for ALL people living with HIV. At the end of the march, there was an inspiring moment of reckoning between civil society and world leaders. We delivered our memorandum of demands to key decision-makers and demanded that they sign the document in acknowledgement. South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Deborah Birx, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé (UNAIDS), and Global Fund Executive Director Mark Dybul, were among those to whom demands were issued, in what was a powerful act of accountability to the thousands of activists who marched with us that day. If you missed it, you can catch a glimpse of the march here.


#2. Activists kick-starting a conversation on the current crisis in funding for the global AIDS response


UNAIDS estimates that there is a $7 billion gap in the funding needed yearly for the global AIDS response between now and 2020. However, just before the conference, new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation and UNAIDS revealed that donor funding for global AIDS decreased by US $1.1 billion between 2014 and 2015. When the mics failed momentarily at the opening ceremony of the conference, activists took the opportunity to break the silence on the funding crisis for the AIDS response, unfurling a banner that read “No New Funding = No End to AIDS”. The next day, Health GAP convened a sobering press conference with leading experts and activists to highlight what is at stake if the world fails to fund the response to the pandemic over the coming years. Our goal was to make sure that news of this funding crisis reached others around the globe - and it did. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s report, the opening ceremony action, and the press conference, left us fired up about increasing the pressure on governments worldwide to close the global AIDS funding gap by 2020.


#3. Young South African activists calling on the International AIDS Society to literally "turn on the mics" for girls around the country


There is strong evidence that shows that when girls are able to stay in school, they are more likely to attain better sexual reproductive health outcomes and to be equipped with the knowledge they need to remain HIV negative. Yet, in South Africa, every month 7 million girls miss school because they do not have access to sanitary pads. At AIDS 2016, powerful young activists from Section 27, the Treatment Action Campaign, and from our very own Student Global AIDS Campaign, interrupted a plenary session moderated by South Africa's Minister of Health, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, to demand that young South African Women have access to sanitary pads in school.  The brave and mighty Ntombi-Zodwa Maphosa took the microphone from the Minister to read their demands. And when the conference organizers tried to silence her by cutting power to the mics, we joined them by chanting “turn on the mics”  until power was restored. Watching this brave new generation of AIDS activists in action, moved many of us to tears.


#4. Global treatment activists taking over the Gilead Sciences booth 


Over 150 activists, led by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, took over Gilead Sciences' booth to protest the exorbitant price of their Hepatitis C drug. In the United States, a 12-week course of Gilead’s Sovaldi costs approximately $84,000 and in South Africa it is priced at R 158,000—prices that put it far out of reach for the majority of people who need it. We joined activists from around the world in covering the Gilead booth in a blanket of gold coins and chanting “Gilead Kills”. Health GAP’s Senior Policy Analyst Brook Baker played the role of Gilead’s CEO, John Milligan, eating handfuls of gold coins declaring: “I need more gold! Give me more, more, more!”. For those of us who were there, the anger and indignance at the destruction of lives caused by Big Pharma’s greed was palpable, leaving us more fired up than ever about access to affordable medicines.


#5. An army of women calling out Roche for “booby-trapping” access to medicines


In an action led by the Treatment Action Campaign,shirtless men and women covered the Roche booth in bras from women around the world to draw attention to the pharmaceutical giants’ unattainably high prices of breast cancer medications. Trastuzumab, a life-saving treatment for HER+ breast cancer, is kept out of reach for women in South Africa, India, UK, Argentina, and Brazil because of its high price. One course of treatment costs R 485,000 or US $34,000. Activists demanded generic production and price reductions for this lifesaving medications. Health GAPers joined the march, organized by the Treatment Action Campaign, wearing bras in solidarity with the many women with breast cancer across South Africa who have been excluded from treatment because of its price.


#6. The angry face-off between activists and the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa  calling out the US government for doing Big Pharma’s bidding 


The United States government continuously works to protect the interests of big pharmaceutical companies, endangering access to affordable medications in the process. At the moment, the US is pressuring India to curtail its legal generic medicine industry, attacking the UN Secretary General’s initiative to address access to medicines challenges, and is supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will expand intellectual property restrictions and lead to higher drug prices around the world. The U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard was confronted by activists from ACT UP London, ACT UP New York, Health GAP, STOPAIDS, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines who delivered a sarcastic “thank you” to the U.S. government for doing the bidding of Big Pharma, before demanding that the Ambassador push President Obama and other U.S. leaders to stop their attack on access to generic medicines throughout the world.  As a result of the confrontation, Gaspard has agreed to meet with activists before the end of September to discuss our concerns.  


#7. A march to the Indian Consulate to deliver the message: “Hands Off Our Lawyers, Hands Off Our Drugs!” 


The government of India has started to crack down on civil society groups, while simultaneously signaling that they will bow to the pressure of the United States and multinational pharmaceutical companies by changing their intellectual property policies. These changes would roll back the production of the quality, affordable generic medications that has made India the “pharmacy of the developing world.”  Recently, the government has targeted the Lawyers Collective, an Indian organization that has been critical to writing human rights abuses (including a focus on fighting for the rights of people with HIV) and battling for access to generic medicines. The attack on the Lawyer’s collective is an attack on their work to safeguard access to medicines around the world. Health GAP, Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign and other allies expressed solidarity with Lawyers Collective, raising public concern about the shrinking space for civil society in India and elsewhere around the world. Activists marched to the Indian Consulate to deliver a petition outlining our demands.


#8. Activist lawyers winning an appeal in the Durban High Court to ensure our right to peaceful protest


What many people don’t know is that our march to the Indian consulate was also a victory for the right to peaceful protest in South Africa. Ironically, before we could march, the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27 had to go to court to defend our right to do so in the first place. A few days prior, the South African Police Service had officially prohibited the march, effectively rendering participation in the action a crime punishable by up to one year's imprisonment. Lawyers from SECTION 27 and Bowman Gilfillan, challenged the prohibition as an infringement of the right to protest in the Durban High Court hours before the march was scheduled to take place. Just one hour before the march, the court ruled in our favor. But we were fired up by our South African comrades who were ready to risk arrest and go forward with the march regardless of the outcome.

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