Trudeau faces mounting pressure to meet UN Global Fund request

·4 min read

OTTAWA — AIDS activists are pressuring the Trudeau government to renew its support for fighting infectious diseases abroad after an embarrassing Montreal conference that left the sector worried Canada will fall short.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will attend a pledging conference for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in New York City.

Canada is one of the fund's largest supporters and has pledged $4 billion since 2002.

Countries replenish the fund every three years, with their contributions usually rising over time as health-care systems build more capacity to treat and prevent these diseases.

In each cycle, civil society groups issue what they call a fair-share metric to reflect how much each wealthy country can reasonably pledge to help the fund reach its goals.

This spring, Canadian advocates called on Trudeau to commit $1.2 billion.

Since then, the U.S., Germany and Japan have all announced funding that met requests from local groups.

Elise Legault, Canada director at the ONE Campaign, an international non-governmental organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, said anything less than $1.2 billion would lead to preventable deaths.

"Prime Minister Trudeau cannot shortchange the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria, because this is a fight we can win,” she said.

The fund supports developing countries in limiting and treating the three preventable illnesses, which in many regions are among the leading causes of death.

Trudeau has championed the fund in the past, including in 2016 when he spoke alongside Zimbabwean activist Loyce Maturu.

Maturu lost her mother and brother in 2003 to both AIDS and tuberculosis. She contracted both diseases and says Canada's contributions funded programs that brought her back from the brink of death. The 30-year-old now plans to have children.

“I would really like to thank the Canadian government for being a traditional donor within the Global Fund because it really has saved millions of lives, and I am one of the lives that has been saved,” Maturu said from New York City, where she plans to press Trudeau to boost Canada’s contribution.

The World Health Organization reported that tuberculosis deaths rose in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade, as governments focused on containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malaria deaths follow a similar pattern, while HIV patients have reported disruptions to treatments that stop the virus from progressing to AIDS.

Maturu said those trends have survivors like her nervous about Canada’s reluctance to announce its funding until the last minute.

“It’s really hard, and we're just keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.

Groups like the ONE Campaign called on the Liberals to reveal Canada’s commitment at the international AIDS 2022 conference in Montreal in July.

The government did not make an announcement and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan cancelled his appearance at the conference, with his office citing “operational issues.”

Ottawa came under fire at the time for not issuing travel visas for HIV experts and advocates from African countries, leading some speakers to accuse Canada of racism. The International AIDS Society said it would reconsider whether to hold any future conferences in Canada.

Sajjan’s office said last Friday that another pledge for the Global Fund is coming, but would not provide any details.

“We will continue to support the Global Fund, which is Canada’s largest investment in global health,” wrote spokeswoman Haley Hodgson.

“Minister Sajjan recognizes how critical the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment is for achieving our collective global goals to defeat HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.”

During the fund’s last pledging round in 2019, the Trudeau government increased its contribution after weeks of sustained pressure. At the time, Ottawa did not challenge rumours it would stick with the same amount of funding it had announced in 2016.

Legault said the fund has made “astonishing progress” toward the UN sustainable development goal of ending the epidemic of HIV/AIDS by 2030.

According to UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by 68 per cent since the peak in 2004, and by 52 per cent since 2010.

“Twenty years ago, the headlines on AIDS were dire; many African countries were so affected that life expectancy was on a downward trend because of the disease, with no end in sight,” Legault said.

“The fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria is one of the great unsung success stories of the century.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press