Warri – President of the International AIDS Society (IAS ) and international co-chair of AIDS 2022, Adeeba Kamarulzaman, described the denial of visas to delegates to the 24th International AIDS conference as not only very upsetting, but also a wider problem of global inequities and systemic racism that have a significant impact on global health.
“Underlying the visa issue is a wider problem of global inequities and systemic racism that have a significant impact on global health, particularly on HIV that has always disproportionately affected the most marginalized.”
“We have all been working very hard to make this first in person conference since the COVID pandemic a big success,” Adeeba Kamarulzaman, IAS president and international co-chair of AIDS 2022, told Devex.
“The AIDS conference has always been about inclusivity and participation from communities most affected, so to have many people denied from coming based on where they are coming from is naturally upsetting to me and an incredible loss to AIDS 2022,” she said.
The 24th International AIDS Conference, the world’s biggest HIV and AIDS event, takes place every two years and is organized by the International AIDS Society. Policymakers, HIV and AIDS activists, scientists, and researchers come together to take stock of the latest science and galvanize action to address the epidemic, which has killed over 36 million people to date.
This year’s conference is scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 2 in Montreal, Canada, but many were upset and expressed frustration for not being able to attend because they were denied visas or are still waiting for their applications to get approved.
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, tweeted on Tuesday that her documents were repeatedly scrutinized and she was “almost refused to board” the plane going to the event. Tian Johnson, an African activist and founder of the African Alliance for HIV Prevention, also tweeted that he won’t be attending the conference after he was refused to board the plane even after “nearly 20 thousand dollars in VISA fees, biometric costs, travel back & forth, public fights for VISA’s.”
Many have called the visa denials an act of racism on the part of Canada. Others raised questions over whether high-income countries should be chosen to host global health conferences when it’s known to be costly and challenging to get visas for people coming from low- and middle-income countries.
Kamarulzaman said they will continue to do “everything we can” for Canadian authorities to expedite and approve visa applications for those attending the conference. She added that choosing a venue for such a large gathering takes into account many considerations, including the size of the venue, safety and human rights, independence in conference program planning, and financial viability to enable scholarships for a large number of participants.
“Originally, the IAS had selected a middle-income country to host AIDS 2022. Unfortunately, the IAS had to pull out these negotiations as the host government made it a condition that it would vet and thereby influence the conference programme,” she said.
“The Organizing Committee insists on full independence in putting together a programme that puts people first and is guided by the latest scientific evidence,” she added.
She didn’t share which middle-income country the conference originally was supposed to take place in, only saying that it was located in Asia.
Kamarulzaman said, they do not have the number of people who were denied visas to attend the conference, but noted that participants unable to be there in person can still access the sessions virtually. She promised that registration costs would be refunded for participants traveling from LMICs, as long as their visas were denied and they applied more than 12 weeks before the start date of the conference.
Asked whether they plan to host the next AIDS conference in an LMIC, she said selecting a host country is “not a straightforward matter,” and having a conference in an LMIC “does not necessarily mean that we overcome these visa issues either.” She did add that the IAS also hosts other conferences that take place in low- and middle-income settings.
Nevertheless, she said the issues surrounding this year’s International AIDS Conference have taught organizers a “hard lesson.”
“We … must not allow this to happen again,” she said, saying they’ll need to “re-evaluate how we may ensure that the IAC remains an inclusive event, especially for the communities most affected by HIV,” she said.