I arrived in Barcelona on the 1st of July to take part in what was to be my first International AIDS Conference. The first thing to strike me was the heat and humidity. As a Nigerian studying in the UK, I had become quite used to the intemperate English climate. Arriving in Barcelona, the first blast of moist heat propelled me back to hot, humid Lagos.
I was volunteering on a pre-conference workshop for journalists organized by the National Press Foundation and the Media Department of the conference. It was a great experience, interacting with journalists, activists and scientists from all over the world. It was interesting to see the different perspectives and dimensions to HIV/AIDS from the scientists angle, to the journalists’, from the North to the South and so on.
I also realised that the weather was not the only thing Spain had in common with Nigeria. The inefficiency and bureaucracy made life very difficult for the workshop organizers. The sheer difficulty in getting someone who could speak English at several points made making very simple requests a complicated drama. For instance, a consignment of conference bags were held up at the airport by Customs allegedly because, the declared value (200 dollars) was too high! Watching Donna, Director of Operations for the National Press Foundation working the phones to sort this seemingly minor problem out was almost hilarious. She would ring the airport, and ask to speak to someone who could speak English. They would ask her to hold on, in Spanish, leave the phone for a few minutes and then drop it. After several attempts, an English speaker would be procured, who would then give another number for the Customs desk. With the Customs desk, the same charade would be replayed and then another number for the courier company would be offered. And so on. It was amazing no one suffered a nervous breakdown. It was that frustrating.
The media workshop over, the conference proper began. Here again, I was volunteering in the PWA (Persons with HIV/AIDS) lounge, which was an extremely rewarding experience. Talking and interacting with PWAs of every nationality, age, gender, religion, profession and orientation brought home most vividly to him how truly global, the HIV problem is. In the lounge, I met many fellow Nigerians bravely living with HIV who had come to the conference to add their voices to others calling for universal access to antiretroviral treatment. It was a privilege to meet people like Georgiana Ahamefule, the first Nigerian to sue her employers who sacked her after discovering she was HIV positive. Similarly meeting the very friendly and intelligent Judge Edwin Cameron of the South African Supreme Court who is a symbol for PWAs everywhere was an experience.
There were of course less agreeable aspects to working in the lounge. The unavailability of a broad menu, the difficulty in accessing the lounge and poor logistics on occasion made work there more difficult. However the friendly, hardworking team of volunteers made the work easier.
It was also difficult to restrict access to the lounge as we could only take people at their word, if they said they were HIV positive. Some PWAs also brought their friends into the lounge to eat, or took food out for their friends, often resulting in food shortages in the lounge. All in all, working in the lounge was a beneficial experience.
The opening ceremony was as expected, a spectacle. Held at the breathtaking Palau St Jordi, it was preceded by a huge demonstration in favour of universal access to treatment. The presence of activists at the conference was very evident from the beginning and this resulted in the Spanish Minister of Health being steadily booed throughout the ten odd minutes of her speech. Sadly at the end, she lost her temper and banged her fist on the lectern which only produced more jeers. Apparently she was being booed for a less than efficient approach to HIV control in Spain and the difficulties experienced by many delegates in obtaining visas for the conference. The presence of the Infanta Elena, daughter of the King of Spain did not deter the activists.
The strong visibility of activists developed further during the Conference with Act-Up Paris closing down some drug company stands, notably Roche and Glaxo Smith Kline for restricting or delaying universal access to lifesaving antiretroviral therapy. One was always being pressed to accept a sticker or badge supporting various viewpoints. Those that spring immediately to mind were the Terence Higgins Trust End the Ban sticker opposing travel restrictions for HIV positive people to the US and the Microbicides Now lobby demanding greater research and investments into microbicides which would empower women. The World Council of Churches also protested the lack of a worship and meditation space at the conference.
Scientific meetings were many and varied and it was often difficult to choose which sessions to attend. The news on vaccines was cautiously promising, as were newer approaches to prevention. Brazil presented results from its antiretroviral programme effectively debunking the myth that such a programme was impractical in a developing country setting. This became one of the recurring themes at the conference as speaker after speaker, including Peter Piot, UNAIDS director urged global commitment for the funding required to make universal access to treatment a reality.
The plenary sessions were also thought provoking, at least the two I was able to attend. The speaker who made the most impression on me being Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch who painted a grim but vivid picture of the twin plagues of HIV and injecting drug use sweeping through her native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe and called on the world to learn from the situation in Africa and act before it is too late. The poster displays were huge and it was difficult to take in more than a very little of what was on display, especially in the hot and humid Barcelona weather.
There were also receptions and launchings organized by various interest groups. I was particularly sad to miss the breakfast meetings of the African-American AIDS Institute which paraded a host of notable speakers, but as they started at 6.30 every morning and dinner in Barcelona tended to be at about 10pm, it was very difficult. Of course there was a very lively social and cultural programme, and there were brilliant opportunities for networking. I was particularly pleased to meet many Nigerians active in the field, whose names I had been familiar with, but had never met and to meet many old friends and colleagues. We shared a few nights eating pounded yam and egusi soup at a Nigerian restaurant (!) one of us had discovered whenever the paella and other Catalan culinary delights became too much for us. Not to forget the ubiquitous sandwiches!
The closing ceremonies which featured Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton as lead speakers were soul stirring. Before the ceremonies started we were treated to an impromptu, soul stirring song and dance session by some members of the South African delegation. In the very left-of-centre atmosphere that prevailed throughout the conference, Clinton and Mandela were very warmly received. Clinton’s speech ended with a chant of ‘Four more years’ from a group of Americans sitting behind me as he spoke eloquently and passionately with his characteristic charisma. Some delegates wondered though why he had not done more for HIV while still in office. Mandela spoke with his characteristic deep wisdom, speaking out boldly, in support of the conference themes but also advising a re-evaluation of strategy on the part of the AIDS lobby.
On the whole it was a unique experience, totally different from other scientific meetings because it brought together scientists, social scientists, clinicians, activists, journalists, human right and patent lawyers, PWAs and a host of different people.
What was difficult to shake off and perhaps disturbing was the air of jamboree that hung over the whole conference. Amid all the hugging and chatting, networking, hustling for funding and heavy handed drug company marketing and playing to the camera-activism, one was slightly sobered by the thought of the millions out there daily living under the shadow of HIV. At times, it was difficult to make the connection.