HIV, COVID exacerbate inequalities, impact people in terms of access to treatment: UN

Counsellors talk with the mother of a nine-year-old boy at a Pediatrics Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) Centre at a hospital in Mumbai, India
Counsellors talk with the mother of a nine-year-old boy at a Pediatrics Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) Centre at a hospital in Mumbai, India. Photo: UNICEF/Hiraj Singh

The early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were “plagued by confusion, fear, isolation, and discrimination” against those infected or at high risk, Abdulla Shahid, President of the UN General Assembly reminded a commemorative meeting on Tuesday marking World AIDS Day – 40 years after the first cases were reported.

Under the theme End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics, Abdulla Shahid underscored a connection between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, pointing out that both exacerbate inequalities and impact people, “particularly in terms of access to treatment and health services”.

Moreover, COVID and the HIV epidemic not only impact the health of individuals, but together have also “impacted households, communities, and the development and economic growth of nations”, he continued.

“We must reinforce international cooperation and solidarity in the fight against HIV, against COVID-19, and on any public health issue that protects our people”, he said.

Two decades since the landmark General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS – the first ever on a health issue – HIV/AIDS has become a preventable and treatable disease.

The Assembly President attested to the importance of learning from mistakes made then, such as hiding diagnoses due to social stigma, misinformation on prevention or treatment, and policymakers who delayed action.

“This meeting is an opportunity to discuss how the experience of fighting against HIV/AIDS can inform and guide effective, human rights sensitive, and people-centered responses to infectious diseases, such as COVID-19”, said Shahid. “We have a responsibility to act”.

“I call on all stakeholders to protect the human rights of all and ensure access to health services without stigma and discrimination”.

While human ingenuity has delivered effective vaccines for COVID-19 in record time, the Assembly President highlighted that as more variants arise, the world must move quickly to “close the gap in access and ensure vaccine equity”.

“I am convening a High-level Meeting on Universal access to vaccines on 13 January next year, as an opportunity to commit to tackle inequalities and ensure equal and fair access to treatment for all, without discrimination”, he informed the meeting. 

And as misinformation had once plagued HIV/AIDS, today it threatens progress in combatting COVID-19.

“We must resort to all available communication tools to better address health and social issues with a human rights perspective”, said Sahid.