By Sadia Kaenzig in Washington DC
Some 80 Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers from around the world join more than 22,000 people from 177 countries registered to attend the 19th International Aids conference that opens its door in Washington DC this Sunday. Among them are Guy Choquet and José Maria di Bello, co-founders of the Red Cross Red Crescent Positive (RCRC+) network.
Guy Choquet is executive director of programmes of the western zone for the Canadian Red Cross. He joined the organization back in 1979 and has marked a series of important milestones in his journey with HIV. In 1988 he was first diagnosed HIV positive, in 1996 he disclosed to work colleagues in Calgary that he was HIV positive and gay, and in 2007 made a connection with José Maria di Bello, another HIV+ Red Crosser at the Inter American conference Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is where the idea for the RCRC+ Network emerged. He has seen two partners die from complications associated with HIV, but says “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We sat down on the eve of one of the biggest conferences on HIV and AIDS to talk about some of the issues surrounding the disease, the Red Cross Red Crescent approach to HIV and the ongoing work of the RCRC+ network.
Sadia Kaenzig: How important is it for you to be here?
Guy Choquet: What I find very inspiring is the quality of the conference. The last theme was human rights for all. It is a human right to have access to aids medication. Period. For the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement as a whole, we were probably the first to advocate for harm reduction strategies without criminalising drug users. We are here to share the advances we have made and exchange ideas beyond the Movement.
The whole atmosphere brings a breath of fresh air. I’m proud to be here representing the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. It is motivational as it makes me look at things in different ways, the more so as HIV and AIDS is often about marginalised populations, and there is no greater place than here to actually talk about challenges of working with these populations and explore how things can be done differently.
SK: What are the changes you see happening over the coming years?
GC: HIV lives within the context of a society. My experience in Canada with the Canadian Red Cross - when I was first diagnosed - was that gay men or lesbians did not come out of the closet. But as society evolves, so too do our National Societies.
When I was first diagnosed it was not usual for people to feel comfortable talking about being gay, let alone being HIV+ for fear of discrimination. But society evolves.
HIV - as bad as it is as an epidemic - has brought a positive impact on society, a case in point is the same sex community to which I belong. I think that without HIV, we wouldn’t be as far as we are now. I recall for instance that in 1988, I was going to the hospital while my partner was in intensive care and I couldn’t see him because we didn’t have any family or legal bond, and then the HIV Movement pushed for change. Pushed for creating greater tolerance within our society. Things are changing for the better, although in some countries this is not yet the case, but we witness the legacy of the changing values, greater understanding of equity. There is a legacy with better health systems available than ever before.
SK: This should be quite a powerful experience. And how is it working for the Red Cross Red Crescent+ network?
GC: We have today more than 700 RCRC+ members with aspirations and goals to form a large part of the greater network of people living with HIV.
It is our third time that we are now actively participating in this International Aids Conference. And the Fundamental Principles of our Movement give us the tools to support the work that we do; mobilizing resources where it makes sense; reducing stigma and discrimination; putting in place practical programmes; putting a face to the disease. These are really important. Encouraging people to talk about it is important.
Our experience living with HIV provide the Movement with a greater contribution. In Haiti, I was sent twice during the post-earthquake response and at a cholera outbreak. The situation in Haiti for health is very challenging, my experiences working with HIV have provided me with strong personal resiliency to face up to such challenging health conditions. HIV survivors are people who call upon their experience to build confidence and strength to make a difference. It allows us to make a better contribution to the humanitarian work we do.
We’ll have an interview with Guy’s fellow founder José Maria di Bello on Monday.