AHF Advocacy Rep Recounts the UN Assembly on Universal Health Coverage

In Global Advocacy by Fiona Ip

When the United Nations General Assembly held its hearing on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) last month, AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s (AHF’s) own Joey Terrill, the Director of Global Advocacy & Partnerships, represented AHF by joining hundreds of country representatives and civil society delegates to chart a way forward to a healthier world.

We invite you to read more below as Mr. Terrill shared his thoughts on how much hard work lies ahead and how AHF can continue playing a demonstrative role in ending HIV/AIDS worldwide—including addressing other challenges that prevent access to health services for millions of people around the world.

How did it feel to represent AHF at a hearing with such wide-reaching impacts for global health?

What a great feeling of pride to be representing AHF at the UN General Assembly! In my personal 35-year journey fighting to end HIV, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of “next-level advocacy” taking place, for which AHF can and will continue to play an impactful role.

To create a path for UHC must include AHF’s “priority asks,” including working to curb Big Pharma greed and price gouging, prioritizing underserved and marginalized communities in both low- and middle-income countries (MICs), and ending gender-based violence worldwide. Finally, governments must be held accountable for their monetary commitments—without that, there can be no true UHC! As various stakeholders spoke, AHFs priorities made even more sense—I felt proud to represent AHF!

Why was an assembly on UHC so important for the consolidation of efforts towards improving healthcare for all worldwide? 

Any serious attempt to provide UHC to the global population has to include input from the various communities and people for whom it is designed—just like any successful outcome will need to address the intersectionality of race, gender, gender identity, poverty, education levels and cultural backgrounds. Stigmatization based on any of these is also a tremendous obstacle to achieving our UHC goal. Additionally, the necessary infrastructure for providing clean water, air and access to healthcare resources must also be made a priority worldwide.

Those who are most in need and who are the most marginalized are the voices usually left out of any serious consideration and evaluation. On this day, we heard some of those voices, which was apparent when the panel member from Guatemala spoke about the need to incorporate indigenous cultural traditions and medicine for maternal care going back centuries with modern Western medicine strategies to get full participation in her country.

What was a memorable interaction you had with other participants?

I spoke to a woman from Nigeria where poverty and scarce options for maternal care in rural communities result in high rates of infant mortality and STIs. These are real-life situations in her village that stood in stark contrast to the soaring gold-leafed arc of the General Assembly room.

During lunch at the UN café I had the opportunity to share a meal with fellow stakeholders, including a middle-aged man from Philadelphia whose organization fights to end TB. I explained AHF’s global mission and shared our “Raise the MIC” and “Girls Act!” campaigns, which made for an engaging conversation. The gentleman said the work AHF is doing is invaluable, and others nearby had definitely heard of AHF and were glad we were there.

What was the overall feeling of the environment at the assembly—from the various participants to the settings of the room?

As a first-time attendee, there was a sense of awe (a lots of selfies too!), but also a clear, joint desire to move the global health agenda forward. At the “Leave No One Behind – UHC as a Commitment to Equity” session, I sat in the hall thinking about the history and global leaders who have also stood at the podium or sat in the assembly.

Unfortunately, by the end of the sessions, we were having the same broad conversations and expressions of inclusivity, with no real details. Yes, marginalized communities need to be included, but what does that look like? Where is the template for moving forward and making it happen? Women and LGBTQ attendees were especially committed to addressing the need to remove obstacles to access to general care, maternal care, sexual health and human rights, but at the end of the day, there was no tangible sense of progress.

Were there any unexpected moments that occurred? If so, what was the significance?

As attendees waited during an unscheduled break, a woman representative from a coalition of various advocacy groups from the US and abroad turned on her microphone and suggested that civil society members make statements and add to the conversations that have taken place.

Without waiting for approval, she started making her observations known, and one statement stood out when she asked, what makes any of us think that the very organizations—the governments, the profit-driven healthcare companies in the private sector, the pharmaceutical industry—those who are responsible for creating the socioeconomic healthcare disparities in the first place, are now to be entrusted with developing UHC to fix it?

Stakeholders and attendees erupted with cheers and applause, and I thought to myself, now there is a Righteous Rebel!

What was your most memorable moment at the assembly? 

One unfortunate interaction stood out—a statement from Russia’s representative about the commitment of his country to provide access to healthcare to all and how they do a great job addressing HIV—but they would not work with or include groups with “made up names.”

Attendees were stunned. His statement was in Russian with English subtitles below his video projection. Instinctively, I knew (as did everyone else in the hall) that he was referencing “LGBTQ” and a cynical murmur rippled across the hall. I hissed out loud like at a villain in vaudeville. There was some incredulous laughter and the moderator calmly felt compelled to say that she respectively disagreed with his statement.

He then addressed the assembly in English and said he could not understand how people could misconstrue Russia’s intention and commitment to UHC. The Australian on the panel who represented LGBTQ concerns and HIV advocacy calmly replied that when a country leaves out groups with made up names,” that is NOT Universal Healthcare,” for which he was applauded!


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