Threats to civil society’s HIV and AIDS progress have lessons for COVID-19 response

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Achievements made in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic are at risk because of continuous attacks on basic civil liberties all around the world. It has become more and more difficult for civil society to reach out to people in need, says a new report from a global civil consortium which is relevant for the COVID-19 response.

Vulnerable groups like LGBTQI+ communities, particularly transgender people, are among the most commonly persecuted, and police and law enforcement authorities are among the main perpetrators, according to the report by Aidsfonds, CIVICUS, and Frontline AIDS. 

The report, titled Activism and AIDS: protect civil society’s space to end the epidemic, launched during the 23rd International AIDS conference, examines the risks and restrictions facing civil society who are fighting to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the launch event, activists shared how new COVID-19 restrictions undermine their efforts to carry out their work on HIV and AIDS and further jeopardise the achievements towards ending AIDS by 2030. 

“The success that we’ve made towards fulfilling the goal of ending AIDS by 2030 has only been achieved because civil society is able to reach the most marginalised communities,” says Sylvia Mbataru from CIVIUS, lead author of the report. “But this is at serious risk of being derailed by increasing ultra-conservative politics. As we confront the COVID-19 pandemic and we witness new restrictions on civic space, it is imperative that AIDS activists and organisations are given the space to serve their communities.”

The research, unique in its scope and breadth and the global human rights monitors involved, was conducted using the CIVICUS Monitor. The Monitor provides quantitative and qualitative data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in countries around the world. The report covers trends from four diverse countries - Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam  ( see civic space rating scale)

The report calls civil society’s response to the disease an “unparalleled example” of ”engagement and leadership”, with those living with HIV and AIDS having played “a vital role as advocates, as watchdogs and in the provision of services”. But governments and law enforcement agencies, among others, are making it difficult and dangerous for civil society to support people living with the disease. 

“The diminishing space for civil society and an increasingly hostile political and social landscape herald an urgent international and regional call for action,” the report says. 

In Indonesia, activists and organisations were attacked online, had their social media content censored by authorities, had protests broken up even before they began, and had their offices raided, among other abuses, according to the report. The country is now a potential coronavirus hotspot, where the government has been accused of lack of transparency, and people have been charged for allegedly spreading fake news about coronavirus. 

In Ukraine, key populations including gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, and transgender people have been targeted by influential religious figures. “I personally saw how supporters of religious organisations disrupted protests of key populations,” says a civil society organisation (CSO) representative, according to the report. In April, one of the country’s LGBTQI bodies announced it was suing an eminent preacher for remarks blaming COVID-19 on same-sex marriage. 

The report also finds that opposition to civic space is strengthening at international and regional levels, with one CSO representative saying that “voices are not heard at the UN”. The World Health Organization (WHO) was a “very closed space for civil society”, the report says, with a complex registration system for organisations.

 

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