The International AIDS Society will re-evaluate how it organizes international conferences as a result of visa denials by the Canadian government, the organization’s president said Friday in Montreal.

The comments came as International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan cancelled a planned appearance at the conference.

Adeeba Kamarulzaman told attendees at the opening ceremony of the AIDS 2022 conference that she is “deeply upset by the high number of denials and pending visas that prevented many registered delegates, including IAS staff and leadership, from entering Canada.”

She said the International AIDS Society, the association of HIV/AIDS professionals that organizes the conference, wants to ensure its conferences include the communities most affected by HIV.

“We know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada, lies a broader problem of global inequity and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health,” she said. “HIV, in particular, has always disproportionately affected the most marginalized.”

A man with a grey beard and black turban stands and speaks in the House of Commons.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office says ‘operational issues’ prevented him from attending. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Other speakers had strong criticism for Canada’s visa policies. Activist and writer Tim McCaskill told attendees that if countries like Canada aren’t up to allowing “all stakeholders” to attend, “then we need to hold these conference in places that are.”

At one point during the opening ceremony, a group of protesters took the stage, condemning the visa denials and inequalities in the global response to HIV. “No more AIDS conferences in racist countries,” one woman said as she made a short speech.

Sajjan had been scheduled to speak at the conference opening, but he cancelled and was not replaced by another Canadian government representative.

Sajjan’s office said “operational issues” prevented him from attending. “We remain steadfast supporters of UNAIDS, the Global Fund and our trusted partners,” Haley Hodgson, a spokesperson¬†for the minister, said in an email.

Omar Sharif Jr., the master of ceremonies of the opening event, said Sajjan had notified organizers of the cancellation “a short while ago,” drawing boos from the crowd.

Two women and a man sit in front of a banner that reads UNAIDS Global AIDS Update 2022.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS (centre), used her speech to call for a world where where people from the global south, and their expertise, are welcomed into wealthy countries. (Ryan Remyorz/The Canadian Press)

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS, said she was “sad the government of Canada isn’t here.”

In her speech, she called for a more just world, where everyone has access to quality health care and where those living with HIV don’t face stigma, “including a world where people from the global south are not denied entry into wealthy countries to bring their expertise,” she added.

The conference, which draws researchers, medical practitioners, activists and people living with HIV, focuses both on scientific progress in the fight against AIDS and the need for increased funding for HIV response.

COVID-19’s impact on HIV response

UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, has said that millions of lives are at risk due to disruptions in HIV care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and declining funding for HIV response.

“As new infections are rising in many regions and access to treatment is slowing, how can it be right also that funding is declining?” Byanyima said to reporters earlier on Friday.

One of the messages of the conference is that if treatment has rendered the viral load undetectable, the virus is no longer transmissible.

That applies both to sexual partners and to pregnant HIV-positive women who could pass the virus on to children, said Maurine Murenga, the director of the Lean on Me Foundation. Her Kenyan organization works with adolescent girls and young women living with HIV or affected by tuberculosis.

“When I was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, I was given six months to live because there was no treatment. I didn’t know I would live long enough to come to a point where people living with HIV, on effective treatment, cannot pass HIV to our partners,” she told reporters.

The conference runs through Tuesday, and more than 9,000 delegates are expected to attend in person, with another 2,000 registered to participate remotely.