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Quilt panels displayed as AIDS 2020 opens


Panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were unfurled from San Francisco City Hall Monday, July 6, at the start of the now-virtual International AIDS Conference. Photo: Liz Highleyman
Panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were unfurled from San Francisco City Hall Monday, July 6, at the start of the now-virtual International AIDS Conference. Photo: Liz Highleyman  

The 23rd International AIDS Conference opened Monday, July 6, with welcoming remarks from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).

In conjunction with the opening, panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt were displayed Monday morning at San Francisco City Hall and Oakland City Hall. The conference was supposed to have been jointly hosted by the two Bay Area cities, but was switched to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 crisis.

"San Francisco has always has been central to the story of HIV and AIDS, and it has always has been a center of community-based research, prevention, and care," Pelosi said. "We suffered from it, we learned from it, we had the intellectual resources to address it, and we understood that everyone did not share the same love that we had for people with HIV."

Lee noted the "huge health disparities" that impact people of color, especially African Americans, many of which are common to HIV and COVID-19.

"I have been to Africa, and many of the issues [there] related to access, care, treatment, and prevention are the same in the Black community in my district," she said. "We're still trying to get the resources targeted to where they're needed the most. We've taken what has happened in San Francisco and throughout the country and put it in within the cultural context that we need in the African American community and the Latinx community."

International AIDS Society President Dr. Anton Pozniak recognized the remarkable context in which the first-ever virtual conference is taking place.

"These are remarkable times and defining times," he said. "Every conversation we have now sits at the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and a new global reckoning with systemic racism. It is our job to make sure that HIV remains a part of the conversation and to connect the dots between conversations. Our challenges are linked and so are our solutions. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that the gains made in HIV are not lost, that the work of ending HIV continues, and that the lessons of HIV are applied."

Several sessions at the conference are devoted to the impact of COVID-19 on HIV and AIDS, including interruptions in care and treatment, declines in PrEP use, and delayed or discontinued research.

"We don't yet know the full impact of COVID-19 on HIV," Pozniak said.

AIDS quilt panels at city halls
Although the public displays of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in San Francisco and Oakland could not take place as intended, members of the AIDS 2020 local planning committee and elected officials unveiled the panels at quiet, socially distanced ceremonies at the respective city halls.

"As we remember and honor the victims of the AIDS epidemic, let us welcome and utilize the lessons of that experience," Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, a lesbian who participated in the Oakland unveiling, told the Bay Area Reporter. "To successfully respond to the COVID pandemic we need to respect science, make sure prejudice doesn't undermine our response, and take steps to protect and value our entire community.

"HIV is not over, and we need to continue to protect our communities and each other, while also doing more to respond to COVID-19," Kaplan added. "This includes recognizing that mass incarceration makes the problem worse and that prejudice and discrimination undermine public health."

Quilt co-founder Cleve Jones recalled that the AIDS memorial was displayed for the first time from the mayor's balcony at San Francisco City Hall in 1987, while Dianne Feinstein occupied Room 200.

"The quilt was never intended to be a passive memorial, its mission was to fight AIDS," Jones told the B.A.R. "The lessons we learned fighting AIDS are extremely relevant today as we fight COVID-19, and it's painful for me to see so many of the mistakes being repeated.

"I'm sad that the conference has to be virtual, but it is what it is," Jones added. "There's so much to be gained when we are actually gathered together in the same room."

But the virtual conference format may have advantages too.

"Sometimes there are blessings in disguise," Lee said during her virtual conference welcome. "We'll probably connect with more people. We have to really seize the moment and commit ourselves to making sure that we are an AIDS-free generation in 2030."

For more information and registration for AIDS 2020, visit www.aids2020.org

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