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Learning lessons from current and future pandemics

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An event hosted by the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), in conjunction with UNAIDS and Aidsfonds, recently brought together thought leaders and decision-makers with the goal of discussing the EU’s engagement in the AIDS response, the effects of COVID-19 and the role of communities.

The virtual session, organized as a lead-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December, moderated by youth activist Iwatutu Adewole, convened representatives of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) and HIV civil society leaders from South Africa and Kenya.

During the panel discussion, the speakers examined the progress made in the AIDS response and the numerous challenges that hinder the achievement of the 2030 targets. The Treatment Action Campaign’s Chairperson, Sibongile Tshabalala, underlined that the fight against HIV had not yet been won. “Although faced with serious challenges, such as lack in access to services, sexual and gender-based violence and persistent stigma and discrimination, we are talking today about the successes and progress we have made,” she said. She stated that community voices were important for the AIDS response and to fight COVID-19.

The severity of the challenges faced by the response was echoed by Helena Dalli, the EU’s Commissioner for Equality. During her keynote speech, she emphasized the importance of tackling inequalities to ending AIDS, advancing the human rights of people living with HIV and making societies better prepared to beat COVID-19 and other pandemics.

The panellists reaffirmed their commitment to ending inequalities, calling for the protection of the human rights of people living with and at risk of HIV, the repealing of outdated laws that criminalize HIV transmission and same-sex sexual relations, addressing sexual and gender-based violence, safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women and empowering community-led responses. Joyce Ouma, Influence and Engagement Advisor at Y+, stressed the need to meaningfully engage in all processes and let young women lead at all stages, from conception to evaluation. “We need to place people at the centre, we need to support community-led initiatives,” said Martin Seychell, the Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Partnerships.

The EU is a committed ally of the multisectoral global AIDS response, as reflected in its political commitments and contributions. It places gender equality and human rights protection at the centre of its external action, through mechanisms such as the Gender Action Plan 2021–2025, the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020–2024 and the upcoming Youth Action Plan. To date, it has invested €2.6 billion in the response to HIV, of which €2.1 billion went to the Global Fund. The Global Fund’s new strategy for 2023–2028 will be crucially important to the achievement of UNAIDS’ new targets. “We know what we need to do, we just have not scaled the actions nor had sufficient funding,” said Dianne Stewart, Head of Donor Relations at the Global Fund.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament approved a resolution on accelerating progress and tackling inequalities towards ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. The Chair of the European Parliament’s Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Committee, Evelyn Regner, expressed the European Parliament’s “full support” to scaling up investments in UNAIDS and the Global Fund and to prioritizing the fight against stigma and discrimination, sexual and gender-based violence and the criminalization of same-sex sexual relations and other punitive and discriminatory laws and policies.

The UNAIDS Chief of Staff, Efraim Gomez, concluded by reminding the panel that the world is off track to end AIDS by 2030, as the 2020 targets had not been met, and called for sustained funding and investment into the HIV response. Referring to the EU’s leading role in pandemic preparedness, he said, “The HIV infrastructure is the backbone of pandemic preparedness, and so investing in HIV yields far beyond it in pandemic preparedness. Help us end inequalities. All AIDS-related deaths are avoidable, and all new HIV infections as well. It is just a question of mustering the will to beat AIDS.”

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