2020 has been an extraordinary year in HIV/AIDS. Not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted communities of people living with HIV/AIDS and other key populations, and the organizations working with and for them on a scale, the effect of which we are still trying to understand, but it has also been the year that has seen two global HIV/AIDS conferences taking place simultaneously. Needless to say, online.
HIV 2020 – In need for a conference about community, for community, by community
Back in July 2018, when during the World AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the International AIDS Society (IAS) announced that their following global AIDS conference would be held in San Francisco – Oakland, USA, there was a huge uproar and protest from communities concerning the selection of the host city, and country.
The biannual IAS conferences have been for decades one of the most important events in the global HIV response, where people living with HIV/AIDS and other key affected communities, researchers, industry, and policy makers came together, shared their experiences, research and data, and major commitments and declarations were made.
However, in the last 10-15 years IAS conferences have grown into a massive event, with tens of thousands of participants, and have been harshly criticized for becoming over-commercialized, medical solutions- and industry-focused that was unaffordable to attend for most of the people such conferences should be about.
The decision of holding the 2020 conference in the one of the most expensive cities in the USA also raised serious concerns about the accessibility and safety of the communities planning to attend. Although the US travel-ban for people living with HIV was lifted by the Obama administration back in 2010, people who use drugs and sex workers still cannot enter the States, excluding these communities from being present and part of the conference. These concerns were exacerbated by the policies of the Trump administration on migrants and refugees, sexual and reproductive rights and health, and people with trans experience, so US based organizations and networks declared the US as unsafe for many communities, especially black people and other people of colour.
HIV2020 Online – Community Reclaiming the Global Response
Following several, but unsuccessful demands and requests by different key networks, groups and stakeholders from all fields of life that IAS move AIDS2020 from the US, organizations and networks of PLHIV and other key populations came together and decided to organize a conference, taking place in Mexico-City, parallel to AIDS2020, which would be organized by the community, about the community and for the community. In no time, the alternative conference received hundreds of endorsements from all over the world, while several organizations and networks also decided to boycott AIDS2020, which IAS carried on organizing as planned.
Then COVID-19 happened and as in the case of so many other events, the organizers of HIV2020 had to move the conference to an online platform. HIV2020 Online has become an online event that stretched its sessions from July to October, allowing access to all session that one was interested in via avoiding the crammed schedules of face-to-face conferences when one often have to make difficult decisions regarding which of the 3 or even 4 competing sessions of their interest to attend.
HIV2020 Online – A conference about community
The sessions have shown a range of topics focusing on core issues of communities connected to and relevant in the HIV, from human rights to sexual and mental health, from lived experience of women living with HIV to the prevention and treatment needs of children and youth, from criminalization and other legal barriers to effective HIV responses to the social and economic determinants in the HIV epidemic.
All based on research and lived experience of communities, in the language of communities to a wide audience of community members that would never have been able to attend a global HIV conference if it hadn´t been for COVID-19 forcing us to shift our work online.
HIV2020 Online – a conference for community
In our opinion, one of the greatest achievements of HIV2020 Online has been that due to the online format of the conference, and several wise decisions made by the organizing committee – besides stretching the conference through several months –, this conference has been the first that provided equal opportunity for all interested to attend.
The conference organizers waived registration fees and provided free access to all sessions, meaning that community workers and locally based activists that could never have afforded to attend an expensive conference, could connect and be part of the discussions with several other community members from all over the world.
Those who could not register due to limitations of the number of attendees on the online platform, could follow the sessions live on the FB page of the conference, where these sessions are still accessible.
All sessions were conducted with simultaneous interpretation into English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish languages, which also opened access to whole regions where community members have been at the forefront of the HIV response but hardly had the opportunity to share and learn from each other due to language barriers.
Community reclaiming the global HIV response
HIV2020 Online, regardless of the restraining measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic has become an event that brought together communities from all over the world and provided an opportunity to share our joint issues, problems, lived experiences and achievements, which is an energizing momentum for reclaiming the global response to HIV, leading and showing the way with communities´ innovative and human approaches to end the global AIDS pandemic for all.