God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensée of a Catholic priest

IAS conference 2017

Fragments of thoughts and impressions

It is my first IAS conference I have attended and compared with the World Aids conference it is a smaller crowd: round about 6000 people from all over the world coming in Paris together to discuss developments in the fields of HIV and Aids.

The first impression is that the conference is much more academic and discerning – it feels that most talks and presentations are indeed on a much higher academic level then at local Aids Conferences or the big world conference.

I am staying at a hotel outside Paris in Nanterre a commune in the Hauts-de-Seine department, the western suburbs of Paris. It is located some 11 km north-west of the centre of Paris. It feels strange – and from the beginning I can feel people have to live in a way which does not support human interaction – it feels cold, just doing the job of housing people without consideration on the human desire to live in a nice and friendly environment. It’s a sort of shock for somebody living in South Africa – it is strange but it feels like as soul-less place. The hotel is situated on top of a commuter train tunnel and station – every now and then one can feel the coming and going of a train while laying in bed.
So I guess all is there to sustain living and working, there are high rising buildings and all kind of services, but the thought I take with is that I can understand such suburbs create problems and even violence.

The mix of people here is amazing – mostly and certainly from the African region of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – it feels non-European in a European way – figure it out what it means.

And travelling to the conference centre – using the train and the metro – being part of a huge crowd in the morning and evening entering and exiting the dark alleys of the underground world – being part of the endless movements of people pushing their way through the crowd to reach their daily destiny – it is breath-taking – but not in the usual sense of the word. I definitely recall all my blessings living with some space and lots of day light in South Africa.

The conference itself is for a non scientific person sometimes difficult to follow – but I guess it is not about the exact details of every molecule one has to understand, the sheer feeling of understanding the principle – the idea behind all the details – the sometimes keen thoughts and trials and errors are a fascinating mental adventure – it stimulates my brain and forces me to read and study and “google”  – I have to admit that is a great experience to be beamed for a while into an environment really challenging you on knowledge and understanding.
But I believe that people running organisations must have at least a grasp about the background work done and the driving forces behind new developments before they reach the grass-root scene to be put into practice. Fruitful communication, bridging the gap between science and grass-root as HOPE Cape Town is trying to achieve on a daily base means for those in charge constant learning and communication with all spheres of their work environment.

Last but not least it was great meeting people from other countries and engaging in discussions – learning from each other and about each other and feeling the compassion of trying to rid the world of a viral onslaught. And yes, there is of course also lots of business – lots of calculation, but even there, you very often sense that those being employed in the big pharmaceutical companies understand that there is humanity needed in business. The connectivity of the global village, the threat that a virus can easily come and bite those far away helped indeed to change some of the attitudes which governed such entities a decade ago. Surely there is still lots to optimize and clarify – a balance must be put into place between commerce and humanity but I guess the battles of treatment have brought some clarity and movement into the field. Well, a watchful eye seems to be always necessary when it comes to that topic.

I will leave Paris tomorrow with lots of new understanding about the work done in the laboratories of this world. I leave proud knowing that our very board member of HOPE Cape Town, Prof Mark Cotton co-chaired the CHER study which produced one of the most published results of the conference: the child for 9 years in remission after being treated as a baby. I leave motivated knowing how many people dedicated their lives and career to fight back a pandemic which brought so much death and sorrow onto human mankind. It simply feels great to be part of a movement which has the goal to end a pandemic and give people a chance to live life and sexuality without fear. To live and to love to the utmost in their lifetime.

The only question I was wondering – how many other priests or clergy have been to this conference – not that it really matters but it would be nice to know that more of my fellow brothers are engaged on this level in a matter of live and death for millions in this world.

 

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Networking, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Durban2016 – a reflection on the World Aids Conference

durbanTomorrow ends the World Aids Conference in Durban – most probably the same way it started, with lots of encouraging words and hopes held high: treatment for all, equity, justice and equal treatment for those on the margins of the so-called society.

It was a week full of talks, presentations, encounters – a week full of demands, pleas, promises and a concert of different voices: researchers, activists, business people – all wanting to have a share and a say in the biggest HIV related global conference, taking place every two years.

The magic year 2020 and the numbers 90 – 90 – 90 were repeated and mentioned over and over: 90 % of the infected people should know their status; from those knowing 90% should be on treatment – and from those on treatment 90% should be undetectable.
Another magic year named very often was 2030 – the aimed end of the Aids pandemic.

But let’s be honest: all the tears, pleas and promises could not hide the fact: as the world stands today, we will not reach this goal. 16 out of 37 million people are in the moment on treatment – and the Global Aids Fund lacks promised money to reach all of the ones in need of treatment. The so-called “war on terror”, the financial crisis, the madness of politics let made financial pledges degrade into empty promises. The gap between what governments have pledged, what is needed and what they finally pay into the global fund is going into millions of US Dollars.

And it is not the lack of money – besides the madness of war and terror, perceived or real – it is the assumption that we have the Aids pandemic under control. It seems forgotten that every year 2 million new infections are still counted and 1 million people perish as a consequence of HIV, Aids and related illnesses.

But even the future looks bleak – conferences like this are needed: they serve as a public reminder of the injustice of poverty, sickness and premature death and the responsibilities of governments and public health sectors. They also bring people together one would not meet otherwise.
In South Africa without the activism we still would be told that HIV does not cause Aids and that antiretroviral treatment kills. Only activism, toi-toi and conferences as well as taking the government to court as civil society brought the much-needed results. But we should never forget those having died because Manto Tshabalala Msimang and others fought against common sense for a far too long time.

I am grateful that this conference brought me together with gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex people, with male and female sex workers and with drug users – encounters without the moral pointing finger – it was about meeting other human beings with their struggles like I have my struggles. It was about listening and giving everybody dignity and space to talk, to share, to explore, to feel loved and accepted. How much could also the churches learn from such encounters – understanding that the world is much more diverse and colorful than most allow themselves to accept in their small little world of daily and religious life.

Conferences like this also help to deepen the understanding of HIV and its related problems, it gives the chance to celebrate successes, mourn failures and last but not least to feel not alone in the battle against a deadly syndrome. 18 000 people from all over the world, united in an ongoing battle to save lives, to demand access to treatment, to put the fingers on human rights abuses and inhumane and unjust laws hindering our fellow brothers and sisters to live life to the fullest.

Conferences like this are energizing – they liberate one from the narrow views one automatically have working day in and day out in the same social and cultural environment – for me as a priest they open up to what “catholic” really means in the full sense of the word.

Churches are praised for their active role in the fight, but they are not very much appreciated when it comes to legal matters or global or national policy decisions. The anti-gay laws in Nigeria, the questions of sexual orientation and the women’s rights in matters reproduction are contentious issues which impact clearly also onto the fight against HIV and Aids. Sometimes it seems that moral considerations overshadow the life-and-death consequences, such stances have on grassroots level.
And obviously the long stance of my own church regarding condoms did not help either – and it took Benedict XVI’s interview to start open up this question in his acknowledgment, that if a male escort uses a condom to protect his customer it is the beginning of morality.

So lastly conferences like this put the finger on open questions, on answer demanding questions, they make the bridge between teaching, sciences, research, religion, faith and real life palpable and it’s the conversation between all parties which could bring solutions adequate to the life of the ordinary person plagued by all the challenges on a daily base.

So thank you to the organizers of the conference for making it possible once again to meet, to greet, to exchange, to laugh together, to learn together, to fight together, to discern together, to disagree with each other in the quest of the best answer possible.

Filed under: Africa, Catholic Church, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, South Africa, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

World Aids Conference 2016

“What do you expect from the World Aids Conference 2016?” is one of the common questions asked in the last week. Well, what does one expect from a conference with more than 15000 participants in a country which was hit the most from the pandemic. Insights into new developments? I guess the most important factor for me is being able to get an overview first hand what is going on the world of HIV and AIDS around the globe. It is indeed the direct contact with activists and researchers where I learn the most  – while listening to their experience and insights – and which makes the trip to Durban worth time and effort. Communication, exchange, but also the feeling not to be alone in the fight against the pandemic leaves on with the resolve of continuing the work one is doing locally.

Durban 2016 is so different from the previous World Aids Conference held in Durban in 2000. At that time it was despair, hopelessness and the ignorance of politics which ruled the situation in South Africa. It was the time when HOPE Cape Town was born out of the need to stop the dying of children and parents. So Durban 2016 is also about achievements, about the millions on treatment, the figure of new mother-to-child transmission slowly going towards zero and the great feeling, that we from HOPE Cape Town have been part of this unbelievable journey of hope and frustration, often changing first place in the matter of an eye-blink.

There is still so much to do – the transmission rate in South Africa is still scary high, other countries also register more new infections and a vaccine seems to be still far away. There are still millions of South Africans dealing with stigma and discrimination on various levels. There is still so much stigma attached, so much fear and anxiety when it comes to dealing with HIV and Aids. We are definitely not there where we want to be, and the next 10 years will be crucial in the attempt to make a new generation of zero new infections a reality. Given the moment state of affair in South Africa, all the service delivery protests, corruption, political ignorance and the still wounded society there is more than a question mark to put behind the question: Will we achieve a victory?  HIV is more than a medical syndrome, it has to do with poverty, with hunger, with despair, with job creation, with investments, with intact families, with proper sex education, with the end of religious bias towards moral questions – and obviously when looking at it globally the amount of resources will depend on how governments want to spend their money. Looking at madness of violence and terrorism, racism and war it seems that HIV will continue to have only a backseat. And this might compromise the achievements reached till today.

Filed under: HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Politics and Society, Reflection, South Africa, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reflection on a conference Down Under

Sitting at Melbourne airport waiting for my long trip back to South Africa it’s time to reflect on this years World AIDS Conference . I remember being in a somber and rather annoying mood entering the plane to Australia. The downing of MH17 over the Ukraine produced not only an unease feeling about flying, but also a sense of real anger that downright stupid politics could translate in killing innocent people high up in the sky. Somber and serious was also the mood at the opening ceremony when a minute of silence was observed before in a rather helpless move the usual declaration followed: “They would have wanted us to go ahead.” Bright heads were lost and honestly we can’t effort to lose one in the battle against HIV and AIDS.

The topics discussed of the conference were as diverse as the visitors. From the scientific portfolio the discovery of how to “kick and kill” the virus presented from the University of Aarhus in Denmark got lots of publicity. Another step in the effort for a functional cure lots of scientists and activists are dreaming of.
Human rights and HIV was another returning topic. As it is now common knowledge, there are three groups driving the infection worldwide: MSM – men who have sex with men, Escorts and prostitutes and IDU – injecting drug users.
IDU’s and Sex for money are in most countries matters of police and justice, driving those involved rather in the dark corner of society. That makes it very difficult to approach those affected and bring prevention, care and protection into those circles.Homosexuality is specially in Africa in the moment a hot topic – US American Evangelists telling Africans how to be an African achieved quite a lot of damage in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya putting all efforts to hold the epidemic in jeopardy. Unfortunately the churches in these countries played their part to drive the pandemic back in the underground where it will continue to thrive and come up with new infections.

2020 is now the buzz word for an AIDS free generation, but as it became clear on the conference, we might miss the aim because of money constrains. Too many people worldwide are still without treatment or even don’t know their status. Too many in power think that the problem is solved at least for their country and don’t really give a damn about the rest of the world.  We have achieved so much in the last years and it would be more than a pity if we would let go again and give the virus a second chance.

The Global Village was smaller than in Washington but not less interesting to see what others had to showcase . It was a pleasure to mingle and meet people from all over the world and knowing that we all try in our ways to end the pandemic.
The Exhibition Hall was populated by all the pharmaceutical companies and those producing equipment of all kind. Here the same picture emerged which always irritates me: some African representatives coming with their big shopping bags and taking away what they can on pens, note blogs and other gifts. I was standing next to the Imperial booth where one representative reprimanded a fellow delegate that she has already been here yesterday to take all pens she could get a hand on. To no avail: as soon as she turned around the delegate took another load before disappearing into the next booth. I can’t but feel embarrassed by this attitude.

Religion and Aids was also a topic now and then. There was a Catholic pre-conference which seems to happen every two years but rather an insider affair with selected participants. At the main conference I attended one on podium on religion and AIDS and I was honestly not impressed about the Catholic representative from India, quoting mainly all what is forbidden to do according to the Catholic catechism. The amount of people leaving the room while he was speaking spoke for itself. A missed opportunity as the Catholic church has a social teaching which contributes so much in this field and a moral theology which should be opened up to development.  I met with a Catholic activist from the Philippines who interestingly was also part of the pre-conference, himself sponsored by a Australian outreach church. Mentioning the strict role of the dominant Catholic church in his home country he also mentioned that at the pre-conference it had to turn down his rhetoric as in his country one does not speak out to direct when “Fathers” are present.

When I look back now on the entire conference then it seems that AIDS is really taking a backseat more and more. The conference was well organised but without real highlights – yes there was Bill Clinton and as always he drew big crowds and at the final plenum one had to endure Bob Geldorf and his platitudes. Like always it was the input of hard-working scientists and activists which triggered my interest. It’s their hard work which moves the fight against HIV and AIDS forward. The global figures show that simply spoken the danger isn’t over yet and there are still too many new infections and too many deaths to count every year. Stigma, ignorance and discrimination are still prevalent and show their ugly faces every day for thousands of people infected and affected.

The World Aids Conference is coming back to one of the hotspots in 2016 – Durban / South Africa. It is meant to close the gap and to win the battle. That means hard work for the next two years and overcoming the challenges and obstacles lying ahead. We from HOPE Cape Town will surely be part of it and as the conference will be in South Africa, there will be surely be more representation possible than sending one lonely man to down-under 🙂
But for him like for most such a conference is always an energizer moment realising one is not alone. Thousands world wide are lenting their knowledge and skills, their helping hand to end the pandemic and to give back dignity to all those affected and infected. Conferences like this are necessary to learn, to embrace new ideas, to see, touch and feel for yourself that one is part of a bigger movement for the greater good of mankind.

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What has it really brought… the conference???

Being back in South Africa and back at my working desk and in my working environment the question remains and I am often asked: What has it really brought to go for 48 hours on flights with 18 hours stop over to attend a conference with more than 20.000 people I don’t know and which comes together for 5 days from all over the world.

First of all: I guess, I will take the shorter flight – only looking to save some hundred bugs does not do the trick and flying from the USA via Europe forwards and backwards is a pain in the neck. On the other hand it had the chance to get used to the new environment.. well.. somehow… 🙂
And even being with such a crowd together: I met people I know, even Prof Cotton from the own HOPE Cape Town Association board was queuing with me on the first day to get into the lecture hall passing the tight security. So it was not that lonely. But despite Washington not being very much involved into the conference, the conference remains a beacon of inspiration. I met so many people from so many angle of lives: I spoke to Thai transvestite and escorts, Russian gay activists fearing for the future of an open society, women from Asia, Africa, South America, HIV positive themselves or affected by the pandemic and all that spirit of keeping the fight going, battling against the odds, not giving up against politicians who don’t want to listen, societies, so traditional that one can’t even mention sexual words in public – it was inspiring. Talking to sex workers about their work experience, drug users who escaped somehow the tight visa control of the USA and made it to the conference, priests who are also doctors in the fields of HIV and AIDS – so many faces are still alive in my mind and in my heart and in my soul.

So, yes, even after some time it remains good to have been in Washington, also for my own well-being as an activist, as a priest realising again in all those encounters how important it is to fight on. To keep the fire burning, also in the very own church. Once again I was reminded what great organisation the Catholic church is when it comes to care, but also how disastrous the moral theology can be at times, putting lives in danger to say the least. The church as the community of saints and sinners were very close to me in Washington – and I could associate with both parts of it. 🙂

I will have meetings now in September with some of the folks I met in Washington and then I will see what in practical terms will come out of the conference for HOPE Cape Town Association and Trust – besides all the new material I could collect and bring with to South Africa. And I am confident that at the end the travel was beneficial to all concerned – as a Rotary saying says.

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12th HOPE Gala Dresden

HOPE Gala Dresden - the event to be in DresdenOctober 28th, 2017
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