08 August 2008

Oye Mi Canto

Thunderstorms bring the fourth day of AIDS 2008 to a close, as they have on most of the other days thus far. As I write CNN is on in my hotel room, broadcasting an interview with Dr Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS, while playing a video in the background of singers and musicians from Sunday night's opening ceremony seemingly in an effort to paint a happy picture and obscure the words of warning that come from him.

As an observer at this conference, I've spent a good amount of time watching the media, and how they package the week's events. The Media Room is huge, with banks of desks and ethernet cables, two press conference areas and an overflow room. There's a fast food restaurant in the media room serving the only hot food in the conference center, and a spirits bar with three different types of tequila. A waiting area separates the main conference thoroughfare from the media center itself, and into this hallowed ground activist groups erupt with surprising regularity, chanting, drumming and enacting mini-passion plays solely for the benefit of the jaded hacks who dutifully mill out from the safety of their cocoon, clamber for the best camera angle, and then scuttle back to file their photos, check their mail and queue up for another special meat hot dog.

There are protests about everything; the cost of drugs, housing for people living with HIV/AIDS, rights and recognition for sex workers, the French Government, and on and on. This conference has been a huge eye-opener for me because it has shown me how fractured the HIV/AIDS community is, with a seemingly endless array of special interest groups feeling marginalized and wanting their moment in the light. I would think that monogamous non-intravenous drug using lesbians would be the least at-risk group in the world, and yet they too are out in force, looking for their voice to be heard.

But surprisingly these protests work, at least in getting issues on the agenda. Four years ago in Bangkok there was no mention of intravenous drug users in any plenary session, and after a series of protests and vocal disruptions then and again in Toronto two years later, almost every single speaker in Monday's opening ceremony name-checked them.

The diversity of interest groups should have come as less of a surprise; AIDS is a pandemic that affects all humanity, thus those who combat it should reflect the full and vibrant tapestry of all humanity, Here in Mexico City I've had the opportunity to see the threads that hold that tapestry together.

And what of the journalists? As I get ready to post CNN moves on to a shot of a smoggy Beijing. The Olympics start in eight hours and the politicians who were here on Monday have all raced to China to pay homage at the official start of the Chinese Century, and with them goes the short-lived attention of the media. The plight of 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS fades once again into the background of occasional human interest stories.

And that is why at events like this its vital that everyone's voice is heard.

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