In last year’s letter, we touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, then just bursting into our collective consciousness. A year later, much of the world is deep in another brutal wave, an outcome predicted by public health experts, and one that could and should have been prevented had political decision-makers been willing to act sooner and take human rights seriously.
This only underscores the lessons to be learned, many of them first imparted by the HIV pandemic, but too often ignored. COVID has demonstrated yet again that public health is fundamentally connected to human rights and that failing to respect and protect rights — and, especially, to take positive measures to fulfill rights — leads to more infection, illness, and death. Although COVID differs from HIV in important ways, they both travel along the fault lines of social inequities. The only way we will overcome both pandemics is if we act to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
This means ensuring freedom of expression: the silencing of health advocates leads to crucial delays in the response. It means realizing the right to health through equitable access to prevention tools including vaccines, to testing, and to treatment. It means ensuring workers’ rights to a safe workplace and to just working conditions, including paid sick leave. It means ending poverty, which leaves people with fewer options to protect their health. It means addressing the systemic racism that impedes access to care and treatment. It means accountability for the ageism and ableism that left care homes chronically underfunded and understaffed, and left some of those most vulnerable to get sick and die of COVID.
The importance of human rights in an effective response to a public health crisis was seen at the beginning of the HIV pandemic in the early 1980s; what was true then is still the case today with COVID, 40 years later.
We highlighted these issues in our Flatten Inequality brief, which we released quickly in April last year as the inequities in the global COVID response were becoming apparent. Many of these concerns — including and especially the instances of often discriminatory policing of the pandemic, and equitable access to prevention, care, and treatment — persist. Yet there is also welcome movement on several related fronts. While COVID remains devastating, it has also shone a light on structural changes that are urgently needed.
We’ve seen movement on the drug policy front, with Vancouver applying for a local exemption that would effectively decriminalize simple possession — if done right. Other municipalities, or even provinces, may follow: in just this past year, British Columbia’s government has officially stated its interest, Montreal City Council has endorsed decriminalization (as have many smaller municipalities), and so has Toronto’s Board of Health (three times) while also urging the federal health minister to issue exemptions.
Demand for decarceration has been growing as overcrowded prisons become incubators for COVID. Canada’s correctional authorities have responded to some pressure here — but as we’ve seen with public health challenges such as HIV and HCV, their response remains too passive. Meanwhile, COVID has been cynically invoked as an excuse to stall further implementation of prison needle and syringe programs — one public health and human rights crisis being used to somehow justify continued inaction on another.
Equitable access to affordable medicines — a life-and-death issue that HIV activists put on the global agenda years ago — has again become a headline issue. Millions will die while vaccines are delayed for poorer countries, again showing the urgency of ensuring that patents and profits do not stand in the way of saving lives. Millions of preventable infections and deaths from HIV may not have yet been enough to break through this resistance, but COVID may finally do so.
It is fitting, therefore, that the theme of this year’s annual report is A Moment of Breakthrough. Our actions leading up to this moment have paved the way for changes that are long overdue. COVID may prove the magnifying lens that has shown the rest of society the importance of respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights in responding to a public health crisis. We cannot let this moment pass without pushing for more concrete and lasting changes.
This is also a moment of change for us at the HIV Legal Network. After nearly 28 years of service to the Legal Network in one capacity or another, more than half of them as Executive Director, Richard will step down in July. But the work will continue under experienced new leadership. Our staff team will be led by Sandra Ka Hon Chu and Janet Butler-McPhee as co-Executive Directors and we are delighted the HIV Legal Network will be in such capable hands.
At the same time, Ron’s term as Chair of the HIV Legal Network will end. As he says, “I am incredibly proud of the work we do and always amazed at the collective energy required to ensure we do not rest until lasting change has been achieved. I may be leaving the Board but my commitment to the Legal Network remains undiminished.”
This coming fiscal year also marks the end of our current strategic plan, Respect, Protect, Fulfill. We are excited to be mapping out the next phase of our work against the backdrop of a new global AIDS strategy that has the strongest focus to date on addressing human rights as an essential part of the HIV response. Let this time in history be a Moment of Breakthrough after a strong History of Action.
Yours in solidarity,
Chair, Board of Directors