The Alliance Secretariat co-organised a conference (1-2 Oct), bringing together the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth HIV/AIDS Action Group. Alliance representatives from linking organisations and the UK Secretariat attended, alongside experts and campaigners from around the Commonwealth countries.
Delegates discussed three key ways to strengthen the HIV response in Commonwealth countries.
- Tackling stigma to advance equitable access to HIV prevention, care and treatment.
- A patent pool to improve access to cheaper, quality drugs.
- A currency transaction levy (CTL) to raise funds to support the response.
Stigma and access
Leading South African activist, Zackie Achmat, from Treatment Action Campaign, opened the meeting, making a powerful connection between violence towards sexual minorities, discriminatory laws and the HIV response.
Zackie, in his last official discussion after 25 years of HIV and AIDS work, told of three people whose fundamental human right to life had been brutally taken away in stigma motivated attacks. Attacks that Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, described as ‘nightmarish’.
Through his powerful stories Zackie brought to life the real need to tackle stigma, and make human rights integral to the HIV response.
Change from within
Zackie believes that ‘change is possible’ and we can learn from reform success, such as the most recent repeal of the discriminatory law against same-sex relationships in India.
‘We need to engage progressive religious people,’ says Zackie. ‘Religion can change and law can change, but it only changes through people.’
‘We need a removal of laws that criminalise men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW), but don’t fight for this under the guise of ‘MSM and HIV’. These labels help, but first and foremost is the label ‘I am a human being’.’
‘The drug crisis is back,’ says Ellen t’Hoen, Senior Adviser on Intellectual Property and Medicines Patent Pool at UNITAID. ‘And it won’t go away unless we do something deliberate about it on a global scale.’
Ninety-two per cent of patients on antiretroviral treatment in low to middle income countries use cheap, generic drugs.
‘We cannot accept the current situation where people in developing countries do not get the best treatment that the West would use,’ says Ellen.
A patent pool would introduce both competition and innovation. It would simplify the development of fixed dose combination drugs, and crucially it would push prices down.
Key to its success, the patent pool can achieve this while preserving benefits for patent holders, who would voluntarily submit their patents, and receive royalties from their future use.
Ellen reports that the initial response from companies has been positive. ‘There is political momentum. Even the skeptics are saying that if there is a time to do it, it’s now.’
CTL – an opportunity we can’t afford to miss
‘There will be 50-100 million deaths in the next year as a direct result of the financial crisis,’ says Sony Kapoor, Executive Director of Re-Define - a new international think tank on development, finance and environment.
‘Foreign direct investment has been reversed; more money is going out of low income countries than is going in’. As the financial crisis has affected developing countries, Sony asks ‘can the culprits be part of the solution?’
Sony acknowledges that it might seem strange to link bankers to deaths, but, ‘it is the lack of money that affects access to healthcare – the link is very direct.’
The CTL would apply a tax of 0.005% on foreign exchange transactions. With US$3.2 trillion exchanged globally each day in 2007, the 0.005% is, according to Sony, ‘too low for traders to change their mind. It will go under the radar – but it will capture all this money.’
Based on 2007 figures, if the CTL was applied to all major Commonwealth currencies it could generate more than US$10 billion annually. ‘It’s a unique opportunity and we cannot afford to miss this’.
As foreign exchange transactions are standardised globally and settled electronically, the CTL would all be collected, supervised and recorded electronically – making it cheap and easy to implement, and difficult for traders to avoid.
At the end of the first day Ernest Massiah, head of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s health section, reminded attendees that we all own the Commonwealth – and as such if we want the Commonwealth to take action, then that equates to individual organisations and countries taking action.
With that in mind each and every attendee was called on to contact their own government and to start lobbying to get these issues on the agenda and heard at the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth issues are discussed and collective policies and initiatives agreed. The next CHOGM, which take place every two years, is happening in Trinidad and Tobago on 27-29 November 2009.