To come within range of the march for global access to HIV treatment - one of many unofficial events feeding into the official 16th International AIDS Conference - is to enter a space that vibrates and demands that you vibrate along.
The jubilant samba drums may seem like a strange accoutrement for an event marking the 25th year of a growing global pandemic, but the rally is a roving wake, resplendent with grief and celebration of the beauty of human desire.
It is also the only sensible reaction to the medieval anti-sex tack taken by George W. Bush, whose AIDS funding has gone to programs promoting abstinence rather like fighting heart disease by encouraging hunger.
There are harsh words for Stephen Harper, who judged the pandemic of snow afflicting Arctic military bases more worthy of his attention. Activists dispense white pillowcases emblazoned with the blood-red words "Sleep in, Stephen?"
They are waved when Harper mandarin sorry, Health Minister Tony Clement speaks at the opening ceremonies at the Rogers Centre. "Our PM is more concerned with fighting Bush's war than with fighting AIDS," says Brian Finch of the Canadian Treatment Action Council.
Clement's speech, variations on "AIDS activists are very passionate" for five minutes, carries on through shouts of "Shame." "But it is how we turn that passion into action," he concludes, "that will define the legacy of this conference."
We? The pillowcases are an undulating symbol. Flashbulbs erupt like a lowering storm as some activists shout and many simply stand in silent rebuke. The symbol solidifies. It is a mass of shrouds.
Any mention of Harper's name evokes a haunting gale of boos, while thunderous applause greets the name Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
At an earlier press conference of the Global Treatment Access Group, Lewis tells the room, "This is a chance for the Canadian government to take a stand rather than dissolve into the amorphous banalities to which Canadian governments seem so accustomed."
Canada was the primary G8 proponent of devoting 0.7 per cent of gross national income to foreign aid for the underdeveloped world, and is the only country yet to commit to that target. (Italy and Germany have promised to reach it by 2015.) Lewis also calls on Canada to remove governmental red tape interfering with the sending of cheap generic anti-retroviral (ARV) meds to the Third World and to champion real debt relief for Africa.
While debt relief was granted in a few cases last year, it is a shell game at best. The IMF austerity measures attached to Kenya's relief, for instance, have forced it to scuttle plans to hire 4,000 more nurses. "Poverty fuels the pandemic," says the Canadian Council for International Co-operation' s Gerry Barr, "and the pandemic makes poverty even worse."
Representatives of those at the bottom of the pile globally enjoy a hero's welcome at the conference. The most highly attended sessions are on the experiences of African women: of grandmothers, now the primary caregivers across the south of the continent as overwhelming numbers of parents are lost to HIV and war; and of sex workers, who bear the triple brunt of disease, poverty and demonization.
"After 16 years of having this conference," says Diva Foundation founder Sheryl Lee Ralph at a session on the experiences of women of the South living in the North, "it is a shame that this is the first time you have listened to the voices of African women." When she intones the word "shame," it's a summoning of it's original, primal force. Print cannot do it justice.
In a fascinating but surreal session entitled Security And The Spread Of HIV/AIDS, Lt. General Bhopinder Singh of the Indian armed forces speaks of growing rates of infection on the frontlines of anti-insurgent battles. "A uniformed force cannot always have the most efficient health care, especially at the front lines," he said, adding that "his boys" are operating in areas that are "infested" by heroin and amphetamines and whose "permissiveness" makes the soldiers vulnerable to AIDS and more likely to spread it.
He doesn't come out and say it, of course, but one can't help wondering about soldiers committing rape and dabbling in drug smuggling.
Carlos Edson Martins Da Silva, head of social issues in Brazil's military, comes closer, pointing out that villages in conflict zones can often become reliant on soldiers, who have regular incomes and provide security, resulting in "unbalanced" sexual ties.
Especially disconcerting, however, is the ever-growing imbalance in the U.S. Activists from Philadelphia's incendiary ACT UP carry out a banner drop and protest within the conference, tying up escalators near the media centre and chanting, "Testing without prevention is not a real intervention" and "Fight AIDS, not Iraq."
While Bush has committed $2 million to HIV testing next year, he also supports cutting $1 billion from Medicaid annually. Over 50 per cent of new HIV infections in the U.S. happen in African-American areas. One in seven black men in DC is HIV-positive. The ACT UP action, far from seeming overzealous, evokes images of foreign dissidents trying to draw attention to dictators before the international press. The United States is poised to become the North's first Third World country, and AIDS is the emergency flare. "America has AIDS," reads one activist's button.
Is Canada taking the first steps down a similar road? The figures are worsening: 13 per cent of HIV-positive people in Ontario are black, and the proportion is similar nationwide. Thirty-three per cent of HIV-positive women in Ontario are black, 66 per cent in Toronto.
"This is emerging as something of great concern," says Esther Tharao of Toronto's Women's Health in Women's Hands. Meanwhile, just under one-quarter of cases in Canada are among aboriginals, who constitute just over 3 per cent of the population.But Tharao points out that the next-fastest-growing afflicted population is heterosexual people with no known risk factors.
Hasan Perez of New York City's Housing Works, strikes a similar note when we chat: "Everything we do is important for everyone even people who aren't positive. This disease doesn't have one face. It could be anyone."
One strange and moving fact: nearly everyone I speak to, though quoting grim statistics, has an aura of beatific calm and optimism. "There are now 1 million people in treatment worldwide," says Lewis. "There is a new basis for this conference, and that is hope. We can break the back of this pandemic."