WHEN you first hear that the biggest, most important event and most impressive event in your professional field is coming to your home city the feelings are overwhelming.
At first, the joy and excitement, and then the reality: what will it mean for people living with HIV (PLHIV) to have the world of HIV descend for one week; does Australia understand what a conference of this magnitude will do for HIV; and what can I do to help?
A lot has been published about the sheer size of the conference. Upwards of 15,000 people descending upon a city for any event is a logistics and coordination challenge. What is less publicised is that the delegates aren’t all doctors and scientists but in fact run the gauntlet of activists, world leaders, community health workers, high-profile celebrities, policy makers from all levels of civil society and importantly PLHIV from every corner of the globe.
I know that, as someone living with HIV, when you visit another country and city for an AIDS conference, you really rely on local knowledge and the kindness of strangers to help you make the most of your time. Knowing that, providing a welcoming and hospitable environment to fellow PLHIV from the world was essential for our reputation and the success of the conference.
Could Australia rise to the challenge of having to allow hundreds of community activists — sex workers, injecting drug users, ex-prisoners, gay men, transgendered people and PLHIV — into the country to sit alongside the world’s leaders in a shared response to the global epidemic? How would that transgendered sex worker activist championing HIV treatment access in the slums of Mumbai be received and treated when they travel a very long way to a cold Victorian winter?
What we’ve seen at every level of government, business, and with members of civil society, is that Australia has risen to the challenge. After reaching out to colleagues who hosted the 2006 conference in Toronto for advice, we set up local coordination structures that allowed all levels of government to actively engage with this event — adding their expertise, networks and contacts to the mix. We challenged local businesses and organisations to think creatively about how to maximise and leverage the event to showcase themselves and draw a portion of the huge economic impact into their local communities. And we activated the arts, sporting, tourism and hospitality sectors to consider how they can support HIV awareness and function as gracious hosts to the conference delegates.
Seeing this response, all PLHIV should feel empowered and proud that in Australia we are breaking down barriers and stigma around HIV as a result of AIDS 2014.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There have been challenges for our immigration policies and procedures (we are one of the few countries that require PLHIV to disclose), the cost and distance of travel has meant that many from the developing world simply cannot reach our shores and of course there has been the ubiquitous ignorance, stigma and discrimination — both subtle and overt — that continues to accompany HIV and threatens our success against it both locally and globally.
I have been lucky enough in my role as co-chair of the community program to be able to speak with many people from all walks of Australian life, whose knowledge of HIV before coming into contact with AIDS 2014 was very low, even non-existent. Now they know not only about HIV, the virus, but also about the need for tolerance, for dignity and human rights for everyone.
For PLHIV in Australia who are able to attend, this conference provides the unique chance to not only learn and network with others but also be a part of the global leadership team alongside our scientific and political leaders in our shared effort to fight this epidemic.
However, not everything happens within the conference session rooms. The impact of AIDS 2014 will be felt far beyond the walls of the exhibition centre. I am certain the conference will challenge their perception of HIV as a gay disease when they see the enormous diversity of people affected and get a taste of the extraordinary amount of resources dedicated to continuing the work that needs to be done in HIV research, prevention, care and treatment in every country of the world.
If you’re lucky enough to live in Melbourne, then you won’t want to miss the global village, or the volunteer opportunities that have been created by the huge number of local events that need supporting. These events and activites, many of them part of the City of Melbourne cultural program, will make sure AIDS 2014 is not only a successful conference but also the biggest opportunity we have had to flood the city and the country with HIV awareness. It is an opportunity too good to let pass by.
And again, Australia has more than exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations. The coordination between local community agencies, businesses and government has already set Melbourne apart from many of the previous conference host cities and aptly demonstrates the long-held partnership response to HIV in Australia.
For myself, I hope that we truly shine a light on the injustices, the stigma and the complacency of governments and communities that continue to deny people living with and at risk of HIV the right to safety, health and wellbeing.
AIDS 2014 exemplifies a global movement in which we all play a part — be you a local shop keeper, a radical activist, a public servant, a celebrity or a PLHIV. It is an international development exercise played out at a global scale held in a single city to highlight what can be done when we come together.
This is your opportunity, an opportunity for all of us to come together, to step up the pace against HIV and ensure no one gets left behind.
Brent Allan is co-chair of the AIDS 2014 Community Program and also the Executive Officer of Living Positive Victoria.
AIDS 2014 is on July 20–25 in Melbourne. The Star Observer is a proud media partner.
**This article first appeared August issue of the Star Observer, which just hit the stands today in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. Click here to find out where you can grab your free copy.