Pandemics and LGBTQI Rights: Lessons learnt from HIV & COVID-19
The Hon. Michael Kirby – LGBTQI Human Rights Ambassador
COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the human species, including people who happen to be members of sexual minorities. As the events of 2020 have shown, millions of people, in all parts of the world, have been adversely affected; many have died.
The Novel Coronavirus, which WHO labelled “COVID-19”, has infected millions of people worldwide. For the increasing number of national leaders who wanted to “go it alone”, and to reject multilateralism, this new pandemic has demonstrated the vital importance and need of international cooperation. Cooperation across the international community has been vital to a successful strategy against HIV. It is also vital for a successful strategy against COVID-19. Autocrats and harsh authoritarian regimes tend to be enemies to LGBTQI people. It is not surprising that they are also hostile to sensible policies on HIV and COVID-19.
In fact, the lessons learnt about HIV by the international gay community and other sexual minorities, have been used by the most successful countries to tackle effectively the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unsurprising that many of the leaders, including many leading scientists, in the struggle against COVID-19 are themselves LGBTQI. They gained their first experiences from the HIV pandemic. They have led the way in strategies to tackle COVID-19. Those strategies include:
- Frank speaking about the pandemic and its essential features as a human virus and a common enemy of humanity;
- Public engagement by politicians, alongside health experts, to tackle the pandemic without prejudice and discrimination against any minorities;
- Use of modern means of communication to spread messages about effective, and often simple, strategies such as social distancing, handwashing and wearing masks;
- Counteracting prejudice against minorities and insisting on common, shared dangers;
- Reaching out to unpopular and particularly vulnerable minorities (such as SOGI minorities, prisoners, sex workers and injecting drug users), because by helping them, we help each other and everyone and;
- Emphasising the need to base all policies on sound scientific and empirical data, not on prejudice or religious views.
Unfortunately, countries with governments that have expressed hostility to sexual minorities have often done the same to those at the frontlines of COVID-19. These have included the present administration in Brazil, the current regime in El Salvador; and the former administration of President Donald Trump in the United States. Taking scientific advice, only, when it suits political agendas is a bad and dangerous course. Founding all policies for any pandemic on sound data and respected scientific opinion is a lesson that HIV taught LGBT people from the start. It is a lesson they have helped to teach the world during the response to COVID-19.
Occasionally, COVID-19 has had an unexpected but welcome positive side. In a number of countries, including Australia, overcrowded prisons have seen their populations reduced. This has saved lives. There has been no significant increase in crime. Engaging with people at risk is the best way to tackle a pandemic. It is so much more effective than disrespecting people and locking them up as prospective political opponents.
Now, there is a further area of operation where LGBTQI people have to teach a new generation. I refer to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines on an equitable basis, to be available to all people everywhere on our planet and according to need.
Not only is this essential for justice and global vaccine equity. It is also essential to the effectiveness of vaccines in creating an immunity. COVID-19, like HIV, cannot be tackled and overcome entirely in an individual country. It is a global phenomenon. It requires global equity and cooperation.
Following the appearance of HIV, the well-resourced countries of the United States, Europe and Australasia contributed generously to the Global Fund against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and to PEPFAR. Millions of people were placed on the antiretroviral therapies. Therapies became a major way to reduce the toll of the pandemic – therapy as prevention.
It will be the same with COVID-19. We will not secure the essential safety of our populations, nor will we get global flights and our economies operating again, unless we react as a global family. This is a lesson that has been emphasised repeatedly by the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS. At the World Health Assembly, most countries demanded a “people’s vaccine” so as to secure protection for the poorest victims of untreated COVID-19. Yet, the reality is that vaccines are often unavailable to those in need in poorer countries.
Thus, LGBTQI people in every land, who were on the frontline of the burden of HIV, have become ambassadors for justice and equality in vaccine and therapy availability. Sexual minorities will consent to be oppressed no longer. They will speak up and, sometimes, act up in order to spread the message of health for all people by 2030. From being targets of discrimination and injustice, LGBTIQ people are increasingly becoming vocal with important experiences to share. They speak up in their own countries. They lift their voices for justice throughout the world.
 PEPFAR – The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief – is a United States governmental initiative to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and help save the lives of those suffering from the disease. https://www.state.gov/pepfar/