AIDS 2020: Racism, COVID, HIV, and Grassroots Movements



AIDS 2020 Virtual began with a stellar Opening Plenary by Greg Millett, Vice President and Directory of Public Policy at amFAR: The Foundation for AIDS Research, setting the stage for the important and necessary conversations on anti-Blackness and racism in public health. In his talk “On Black lives in the era of COVID & HIV”—I highly recommend listening to the entire talk, jam packed full of data and bold truths—Millett weaves data on the long standing racial disparities in HIV diagnosis and treatment outcomes with the emerging data illuminating similar disparities in COVID outcomes. “For the past 40 years, the AIDS response in the U.S. has been marked by stark racial disparities.  In his opening plenary at the 2020 virtual International AIDS Conference, Millett, amfAR VP and Director of Public Policy, explores these disparities in multiple contexts and populations, as well as their drivers and solutions. Millett was among the first to draw attention to racial disparities in today’s COVID-19 pandemic and he discusses the disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on black and brown communities.” With his keen ability to link science and policy, he knits together the historical racism and structural inequities producing these similar health inequities in two different pandemics. Birthed by slavery’s legacy and underscored by the vast gap in wealth distribution and allocation of public infrastructures, social determinants of health support health trajectories. For Blacks, the impact of poverty, housing, and segregation/isolation are behind the data we see in both the HIV and COVID pandemics. Finally, Millett reminds us that any gains we have made in the HIV field have been in tandem with community. As we grapple now with belatedly unpacking the systemic racism and newly tackling COVID, how might public health address these crisis in tandem with community?



“While we are in the same turbulent water, we are not all in the same boat” admonishes Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes in her Thursday morning Plenary titled “The Road Ahead: Addressing Injuries of Inequality in the HIV/AIDS Pandemic.”  Dr. Watkins-Hayes is a Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and Author of the recently published Remaking A Life: How Women Living With HIV Confront Inequality. Based on her years of qualitative research that went into the development of her groundbreaking book, Dr. Hayes-Watkins shares how sites of trauma can become sites of intervention. She proposes utilizing social science frameworks to help analyze and map the roads ahead, taking into account the historical legacy of anti-Black violence, slavery, colonialism, and modern technologies of containment. This talk provides hope in the form of structures we can invest in as a public health sector—what she refers to as “framing institutions” that can cultivate resilience.


For more, follow Dr. Watkins-Hayes on Facebook and check out the Remaking a Life website. For an additional perspective on the legacy and promise of the investments made in the domestic HIV/AIDS space, read Cleve Jones recent piece in the The Guardian: I witnessed the horror of HIV/AIDS 30 years ago. This is how we can conquer a pandemic.



UCSF’s Associate Professor in the department of Family Health Care Nursing Dr. Monica McLemore, drew lessons from successful, intersectional grassroots movement work to consider as approaches to HIV and COVID. Reproductive Justice and Black Lives Matter/The Movement for Black lives began with a human rights framework. In common, the movements center lives free from violence.  Black Lives Matter prioritizes decentralization, linkages and connections that are deep and expansive, being nimble, local control and accountability, and platforms with theoretical basis.  Reproductive Justice prioritizes autonomy and options with dignity, recognizes there is no health equity or economic justice without reproductive justice, and pleasure and consent.  With these priorities in mind and turning our attention to the Millennium Development Goals we need to use a middle range theory + praxis + strategies that are embedded in a human rights approach. 


Follow @mclemoremr on Twitter for academic and community-based insights on health equity.

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