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An Intern’s Experience at the 2021 UN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS

August 21, 2021

UNHLM HIV/AIDS Blog Series: Part 4

I could have never imagined that I would be able to attend an official United Nations High-Level Meeting as an undergraduate. 

Receiving this accreditation was an honor that was only possible through my internship with the Global Alliance and through virtual accessibility brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given my limited years of HIV/AIDS research experience, I am grateful to have been able to represent the Global Alliance at the 2021 High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS with Gita Jaffe, Evelyn Tomaszewski, and Erica L. Hamilton—who collectively have been involved in global HIV/AIDS eradication efforts for decades. 

As an intern with the Global Alliance, I have encountered several forums that have transformed my understanding of global health policy. Among these, the UN High-Level Meeting (HLM) on HIV/AIDS was markedly instrumental in molding my understanding of longstanding global concerns surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

The High-Level Meeting on AIDS, with its five thematic panels and thirty supporting events, provided an in-depth examination of concerns across the HIV/AIDS eradication spectrum—with both current evaluations of international efforts as well as key takeaways for multi-sectoral action. From my background as a student HIV/AIDS researcher, I understood that the lessons I learned through the thematic panels and side events could help better inform my personal efforts in this field. Beyond this, policy-specific criticisms and suggestions, such as those presented in Thematic Panel 2: Putting people and communities at the center of the response to AIDS, were immensely valuable in contextualizing where our next steps lie as members of civil society.

Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, was a part of several crucial conversations regarding the role of inequalities in driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The High-Level Meeting as a whole utilized an inequalities framework to revisit why previous HIV eradication targets have not been met and to discuss how to further accelerate efforts to end AIDS by 2030. Present data illustrates how inequalities, in each of their diverse forms (social, economic, gender, and racial, to name a few), are the primary obstacle to HIV/AIDS eradication efforts. As Ms. Byanyima metaphorically stated, “viruses feed off of inequalities”—a reality we have all come to face following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The President of the United Nations General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, echoed this message, emphasizing that those most impacted by HIV and AIDS are the most vulnerable among us. From attending a side-session titled Scaling up efforts against human rights barriers including HIV-related stigma and discrimination, I understood that inequalities are but only bolstered by structural determinants such as stigma, discrimination, violence and criminalization. Human rights barriers liaison with existing development deficiencies and create dangerous environments which allow adverse health conditions (including physical, mental, and environmental) to fester and take root. As Mr. Bozkir stated, “AIDS remains not just a health issue, but a broader development challenge.” Through this session, I discovered that food insecurity, climate crises, and exorbitant transportation costs—what some may consider to be unrelated to HIV/AIDS—are monumental obstacles to HIV/AIDS eradication efforts. Once again drawing on COVID-19 as a direct example, resource allocation and systemic human rights barriers are further disrupted in times of crises—a reality that those working in HIV/AIDS eradication efforts know all too well. 

This is to say, however, that nearly all speakers and panelists acknowledged that inequalities are not coincidental. Rather, they are the product of policy decisions, and as such, they are well-within our reach to reverse. As Ms. Byanyima stated, “science moves at the speed of political will.” 

Although I am early in my career, attending the High-Level Meeting made the following very clear: if international leaders who attended this forum choose to enact their political will, face their communities and bolster strong civic engagement, while utilizing scientifically-sound, multisectoral and rights-based approaches to remove social and environmental barriers, we may very well eradicate HIV/AIDS by 2030. In the process, we will have made history by prioritizing the upliftment of marginalized communities and individuals, leaving a legacy for generations to come.

If you haven’t already checked out the first three parts of this series from theUN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, you can find them here:

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