Public health has dominated the world’s headlines for more than a year. The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives and livelihoods and on economies worldwide has reminded us of the destructive power of a microscopic virus.
In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world will come together from 8 to 10 June to set out a bold new agenda to end another pandemic, 40 years after it emerged. At the 2021 United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS, in New York and online, leaders, activists and people living with and affected by HIV will forge a new United Nations political declaration to set the world on course to end AIDS by 2030.
Huge gains have been made since the first AIDS cases were identified four decades ago. After peaking at 1.7 million in 2004, global AIDS-related deaths fell to a little less than 700 000 in 2019. New HIV infections have similarly fallen, from 2.8 million in 1998 to 1.7 million in 2019. And HIV treatment has given hope to millions. What was once a death sentence can now be effectively managed. In June 2020, 26 million people were accessing life-saving antiretroviral therapy, a treatment that can give people living with HIV a normal life expectancy.
However, these gains are insufficient, and the Philippines is not on track to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030—a promise made by Philippines, along with 192 other countries, in the Sustainable Development Goals and at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS in 2016.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting nearly every nation, it’s easy to forget other public health crises. But the HIV pandemic is still with us. It’s still real. And COVID-19 is impacting the progress on ending AIDS.
The HIV pandemic affects different groups in different countries. In the Philippines, it predominantly affects key populations—gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, transgender people, young key populations, and people who inject drugs. In other countries, women, especially young women and adolescent girls, bear the brunt. At the heart of it, inequalities are the fuel that drives the HIV pandemic.
COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in health systems at the global, regional and national levels, but the knowledge, expertise and infrastructure built up over 40 years of the AIDS response have been crucial in guiding a human-rights led, people-centred response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Investing in the global health infrastructure has aided the fight against COVID-19, but we have to do more and strengthen those weaknesses in health systems so that the next time a crisis strikes, the world is ready and able to act.
In March this year, the UNAIDS governing body adopted the Global AIDS Strategy 2021–2026, which aims to close the gaps that are preventing progress to ending AIDS by focusing on the inequalities that drive the pandemic. It aims to promote fairer societies. It sets out targets that if met would place the world firmly back on track to end AIDS by the end of this decade.
Building on the global AIDS strategy, the United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS will endeavour to change the course of the HIV response. The political declaration that will result must be bold and must be ambitious. With so little time left, it must give the leadership the world needs to set the course for the last few years of the HIV response.
In being bold, the political declaration must ensure that no one is left behind. It needs to give strong support to issues that some may find uncomfortable—comprehensive sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, the human rights of everyone, including key populations, who are often marginalized and criminalized for their gender identities, sexual orientation, livelihoods or dependencies, or for simply living with HIV.
The new political declaration must be backed up by political commitment. Where promises made in the past have not been met, it’s been in part because the world failed to provide the support needed to build on those promises.
We know that when the right level of investment is made in the HIV response, the money works. Each additional US$ 1 of investment in implementing the global AIDS strategy in low- and middle- income countries will bring a return of US$ 7.37 in health benefits.
Now is the time to reenergize health on the global agenda. COVID-19 is the immediate priority, and with it the vital need to roll out vaccination for everyone, everywhere—the huge inequality in access to vaccination is nothing short of a scandal—but the world must not forget HIV. The Philippines must not forget HIV.
But we should be optimistic. The Philippines has already made great strides in the HIV response. We know how to diagnose and treat HIV. We know how to prevent new HIV infections. We know how to save lives. The Philippines’ support for a strong United Nations political declaration on HIV is vital if the world is to get to the end point after what, by 2030, will be nearly 50 years of the HIV pandemic.
Now is the time to change the course of the HIV response. Now is the time to put the world on track to end AIDS. Let’s get this done!
By Winnie Byanyima
Executive Director, UNAIDS