International AIDS Conferences are known for their dramatic protests. Tommy Thompson was booed off the stage in Barcelona. Randall Tobias, then head of PEPFAR, silently fumed at the podium for 45 minutes in Barcelona before protesters quieted enough for him to speak. The Prime Minister of Thailand was embarrassed at the Bangkok opening ceremony. AIDS activists, following the tradition of ACT UP! are known for their vocal presence -- and for pushing for real dialogue and action.
Sadly, the Toronto conference is missing real protest. Sure, the activists are all here -- in fact, they are quite numerous because of the proximity to the U.S. But the protests are tame, small, and generally uncontroversial. The most vocal is the group that holds up empty lab coats and yells about the shortage of health workers. As Bill Clinton said, "I agree with you!" No one disagrees that there is a shortage of health workers, but sadly there are few solutions being proposed by the activists.
The only other protests I have seen are a "Where is the Prime Minister?" group that protests the absence of the Canadian P.M., a 30-person strong group asking Abbott Labs to leave India (this protest was outnumbered by the journalists documenting it), and a takeover of a vacant booth apparently paid for by Abbott but not used. Where is the fake blood poured over pharmaceutical booths of years past?
Surely there are issues that need the attention of a good rally. Why are there no protests against the U.S.'s refusal to grant visas to HIV positive people? How about a protest on the dearth of pediatric ARVs? The status of women? The criminalization of drug use and sex work in many nations that drives HIV positive people underground, away from treatment? The continued AIDS funding gap?
Protests at the International AIDS Conference are an opportunity to highlight major problems to policy makers and journalists, and for activists from around the world to unite around problems that need to be addressed. CGD is a think tank, so our role is to watch and write about the key issues -- and propose rational solutions to the problems raised -- so come on and Act Up!