The selection of San Francisco and Oakland to host the 23rd International AIDS Conference in 2020 speaks to the power of activism over despair, of science over fear, and of ambition over acceptance — at least to some of those, including Congressional representatives, advocacy organizations, and service providers, cheering the announcement released Tuesday.
Or it represents a choice of the wrong place at the wrong time, that is both unsafe and unethical, that will lead to the exclusion of many of those worldwide already most challenged by the pandemic, and to the endangerment of others, while distracting from formidable challenges at home — according to a letter supported by more than 50 organizations, including, according to organizers of the letter, “every single U.S.-based national network of people living with HIV,” as well as, at this writing, about three dozen individuals. The letter, released immediately following the IAS announcement, emphasizes continuing legal entry barriers to people who have used drugs and people who earn income in sex work traveling to the United States, as well as Trump administration policies and positions that challenge entry by those traveling from Muslim-majority and Latin American countries. In addition, the letter notes, with the conference scheduled for July 2020, it will bring attendees that include scientists, people living with HIV, and policy makers into a hostile environment, where the current president has referred disparagingly to all African countries and other nations, as well as to people with HIV, when a new presidential election season in its final stretch will only increase opportunities for hateful and divisive rhetoric.
The selection was not made quickly or easily, IAS has stated in a web site post about Hosting AIDS 2020, and The Story of AIDS 2020. Interest in hosting the conference is limited by resources and politics, according to the statement, which says that in spite of efforts to encourage applications from nations in “the global south,” none were submitted. At the same time, the IAS asserts, holding the conference in the United States in one of the earliest areas hit hardest by the pandemic, now “a global capital of AIDS activism” will challenge policy makers and politicians toward progress and change. And, the IAS says, holding the conference in that setting will open a new opportunity to address discriminatory entry policies.
The end of the earlier, more than 20-year entry ban barring U.S. entry to people from outside the U.S. living with HIV, however, preceded the announcement, if not the selection of Washington, DC as the site of the 2012 AIDS conference, the first time the conference was held on U.S. soil following the introduction of that ban. And, as supporters of the letter opposing the current selection of a U.S. site note, bans affecting sex workers and people who use or used drugs greatly limited participation and input from important populations from the 2012 meeting, and led to alternative conferences in other countries as noted, also, by Science Speaks.
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