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T&T-born HIV activist fights on

Sunday, July 27, 2014
Beyond the crash of MH17...
HIV activists stage a silent protest on July 20 at the opening ceremony of the International Aids 2014 conference, which commenced with a memorial for six HIV activists who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Travelling from New York to Australia via Los Angeles with her husband and 20-month-old daughter in tow, Solange Baptiste Simon somehow found a quiet Wi-Fi hotspot moment in LAX and decided to check her What’s App messages. That’s when things went dark. 

T&T-born Baptiste Simon is director of Global Programmes at the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), a network of people that fight for access to treatment for all communities affected by HIV. She was one of more than 14,000 scientists, campaigners and politicians on their way to the International Aids 2014 conference in Melbourne last week. 

298 dead
“When I got to LA, my boss sent me a What’s App message saying, ‘Did you hear that the Malaysian plane crashed?’” Baptiste Simon recalled in a telephone interview with the T&T Guardian on day two of the conference.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. The plane is believed to have been shot down by pro-Russia separatists in a conflict zone close to the Ukraine–Russian border. Baptiste Simon’s boss, Christine Stegling, was already booked on another Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, and she was calling to ask for one crucial piece of advice.

“She was already scared about coming to Australia on Malaysia Airlines because the other flight (MH370) had gone missing before that.” 

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared on March 8, and was never found. 

“She texted me saying, ‘Just saw that Air Malaysia plane en route from Europe to KL has crashed over Ukraine. This is who I am supposed to go with tomorrow. Don’t know what to do, what do you think?’”

Islamabad 2008
“I wanted to help,” Baptiste Simon said, her voice dropping to a deep whisper, “but I just kept thinking about Islamabad.” 

“The last time someone asked me for advice like this, it was a colleague asking me where she should stay in Pakistan, and I told her I stayed in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. She eventually picked that same hotel. But that hotel blew up.”

On September 20, 2008, a dump truck filled with explosives detonated in front of the prestigious Marriott Hotel in an upscale area of the Pakistani capital. At least five foreign nationals were among the 54 people killed in the terrorist attack. “Half of her room was gone. She had no clothes. She was in her pyjamas, jumping over dead bodies with bare feet.”

Although her colleague survived, six years later the gruesome sequence still gave Baptiste Simon pause. After contemplating her reply to her boss, she texted, ‘Oh my goodness! Are you serious? All I have to say is let God guide that decision.’

'Not here'
Stegling stayed with Malaysia Airlines, landing uneventfully just before the conference opening day. But her safe arrival went duly unnoticed, as news was quickly spreading among participants of another dimension to the MH17 tragedy. Six conference delegates had died in the crash.

“I was in utter shock. One of the ladies’ names was Martine, she has a 15-year-old son. She was a single mom. Martine de Schutter. She was the programme manager for the Dutch programme that I lead from the ITPC side. She was, like, my height,” said Baptiste Simon, who is just above five feet. 

The International Aids Society later confirmed the six identities: world-renowned researcher Prof Joep Lange and his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren; World Health Organisation media officer Glenn Thomas; Director of The Female Health Company Lucie van Mens; Stop Aids Now activist Pim de Kuijer; and Bridging the Gaps programme manager Martine de Schutter.

De Schutter was deeply involved in the fight against inequality that blocks access to treatment for people living with HIV. A strong advocate for universal health care, she had only recently become manager for the programme, funded by the Dutch government, to support key affected populations globally. 

Baptiste Simon was working closely with de Schutter to ensure that people affected by HIV—including sex workers, people who use drugs and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community—are given full access to the medicines and care that they need.

“I had calls with Martine, draft emails saved in my Outlook for Martine and worked with her to set up a satellite session on the programme. My schedule had Martine involved. Now she’s just not here,” she said.

“The head of the Dutch Aids Fonds, Ton Coenen, was talking to me and Christine. He’s Dutch and she’s German—both slender and tall. And he actually became emotional because I reminded him of Martine...because I’m so short!”

Stepping up the pace
The death of beloved colleagues imposed a surreal atmosphere over the whole conference. A memorial ceremony was quickly added to the formal agenda, as part of the official opening.

“People are numb. We’re just trying to keep that balance between managing the emotion of the moment but still not acting as if it’s business as usual." 

High-level international meetings attract activists who typically stage disturbances to get their point across on the global stage. But out of respect for lost friends and families, Baptiste Simon and others toned down their protest at the Aids 2014 opening ceremony. 

“We didn’t shout or chant anything. Instead, during the opening ceremony, we just walked in silent protest holding our placards before Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS executive director. We didn’t want to disrespect the memorial that was being held for our beloved colleagues during the ceremony.” 

For Baptiste Simon, through all the personal trauma and human tragedy, the focus on the larger mission remains crystal clear.

“Aids will only end when we put people before profits and respect every human being’s right to health. We respected the memorial for our friends, but the best way to really honour their lives’ work and carry on their legacy is not to tone the struggle down at all but to pick up the pace. Too many people are still dying from a disease that is treatable. ”


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