AIDS2020: Truly representing the voices of the African Continent?

The 23rd International Aids conference themed “Resilience” was meant to be hosted in San Francisco and Oakland California this year. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 they have moved to a virtual platform, hosting the conference online from 6-10 July 2020. 

Connecting virtually has been the best possible solution to keeping human connection and ensuring life continues as “normal” in these times. However, battling an unprecedented virus, trying to revive economies and rebuild in the process, the question that comes to mind is: are we ready to host a conference of this magnitude on a virtual platform as opposed to postponing for a later date? And does the platform allow for representation from those most affected by HIV/AIDS? 

The International Aids conference carries a mandate that is shaped by stakeholders including researchers, scientists and civil society, together representing the interests of those affected and infected in the most vulnerable communities. Eastern and Southern Africa account for 20.7 million of the 38 million people living with HIV in the world, and Western, Central and North Africa record 5 million people living with HIV. Together, Africa accounts for 68% of HIV+ people globally according to the UNAIDS 2019 statistics (UNAIDS notably being a permanent partner of the convening). 

Africa is the most vulnerable continent when it comes to HIV/AIDS. Those most affected should have the strongest voice and representation with the simplest access. Representation, access and simple are not the first words that come to mind given the enormous challenges we are facing as a continent. Human Rights are still a contentious issue, access to public health care is far from seamless, sexual reproductive health is still packaged in a binary form, infrastructure is not modernized nor efficient and doesn’t meet the demand, and data prices are ridiculously expensive. Having a smartphone as well as a computer is a privilege, one not many people have on the African continent. We have enormous issues around literacy and access to information and resources in Africa which delay to some degree progress made in the fight against HIV/Aids. This reality calls for pragmatism. 

Technology is meant to improve the human experience, but in the same breath may complicate one’s life. Getting your head wrapped in different time zones may be tricky. Not every person is tech-savvy nor is able to maintain an online presence by means of stable data/internet connection. The cost of living is high, the economic setback caused by COVID-19 has affected many people, and we haven’t reached the recovery stage as yet. Naturally the above will leave a gap in the representation of voices at the AIDS2020 virtual conference.

1772 scholarships were awarded to individuals who applied, met the requirements and got selected. However, there are likely many more who would have liked to share their voices at AIDS2020. Some did not have the data to complete the online application or have poor connectivity living in rural areas like the Eastern Cape. For those unable to access the scholarships, they will need to pay the hefty conference fee. Upper middle-income country delegates (like South Africa) pay a fee of 360 USD, which in South African Rands would be R6631,35. Students or post-doctoral fellows in middle-income countries pay R 2208,84 which is 130 USD.  This is a large amount of money to expect individuals to pay in order to work together and create a viable strategy to ensure continuity of a healthy life on earth.  

One of the five objectives of the AIDS2020 conference is to “shine a spotlight on the needs of populations left behind” – vulnerable communities such as the LGBTIQ+ community. Yet these are the same individuals who have been left behind at this gathering due to poor accessibility, language barriers, and a complicated online platform. Other communities too, such as those with visual ailments or disabilities, have been left behind. 

With that said, this is a learning curve. As a collective we constantly learn and unlearn, however, we need to constantly bear in mind who is most vulnerable and which voices are heard and look to use our privilege for the betterment of others.