As the International AIDS Society's annual conference (AIDS 2022) made its return to being an in-person event this past weekend in Montréal, Canada, things were anything but quiet. From the very start, protests took center stage, literally and figuratively, at the highly influential global HIV conference.
In addition to outcries against the lack of government response to the recent MPV (monkeypox) outbreak, there was a second group of protestors expressing outrage over what they saw as systemic racism that prevented many foreign IAS delegates from attending the conference. It seems many delegates, the majority of whom were from African countries, were denied travel visas by the Canadian government, and therefore could not attend. In addition, most had already made extensive and costly travel arrangements before being denied entry.
Both groups of protestors stormed the stage and demanded to be heard during the event's opening ceremonies.
After dozens of the activists protesting the visa denials chanted “Let us take the stage!” as the event opened Friday morning, event organizers did allow them to do so for about 10 minutes, according to a report by health care advocacy organization CodeBlue. South African HIV activist Vuyiseka Dubula, of Fighting AIDS Coalition, stepped to the microphone to express the group's disapproval of Canada’s “hostile” immigration policies and other inequities regarding access to adequate health care.
Activist Vuyiseka Dubula spoke during a demonstration that disrupted AIDS 2022 opening ceremonies
“Is the Canada government here in this opening to hear its racism's effects? We demand them to be here to listen – no more AIDS conferences in racist countries!” said Dubula passionately to the crowd.
Despite their obvious anger and outrage, many conference attendees praised the protestors for their well-organized and nonviolent methods. For example, both groups kept IAS exhibitors informed about when and where demonstrations would take place. In turn, the protestors where never denied an opportunity to take the floor and be heard by event organizers. During the demonstrations, most in the crowd simply listened and took video.
President of the International AIDS Society, Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman, also stated that she and the organization were “deeply upset” that many IAS delegates were unable to obtain visas and attend the Canadian-hosted event. (It should be noted that the protests were primarily aimed at the Canadian government, not IAS or any specific exhibitors at the conference.)
“Ensuring broad participation in AIDS 2022 is vital for a simple reason – after four decades of responding to HIV, we know that we won’t reach our targets without involving all stakeholders at every level of HIV response,” said Kamarulzaman at the event's opening ceremony. “And of course, we know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada lies a broader problem of global inequities and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health.”
“HIV, in particular,” she added, “has always disproportionately affected the most marginalized.”
Demonstrations continued periodically throughout the duration of the conference, which ran through Monday, August 1. In the exclusive Plus video below, watch as protestors storm though the conference's main exhibition hall shouting, “No visa, no voice!”