Lessons from history can fuel a fair Covid 19 recovery


Activists pushing for positive change in response to the Covid-19 pandemic should learn lessons from South Africa’s experience of the AIDS crisis, a leading campaigner has said.

Mark Heywood, co-founder of South Africa’s HIV/AIDS Treatment Action Campaign, made the call in a wide-ranging webinar discussion hosted by SCI and STEP, a rights-based community organisation. 

Mark was in conversation with Irish social justice activist Bernadette McAliskey.

In the discussion, available in full in the video below, both drew on their life experience to discuss how change-makers might work together to build a fairer, more equal future.

Mark recounted how the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) started with ten people, but ten years later had 50,000 volunteers and helped save five million lives through campaigning and court action challenging the pharmaceutical giants, the government, but also public mindsets.

“These weapons are just as necessary in Covid 19 as they were in relation to the HIV epidemic,” he said.

“The difference perhaps, is that HIV wrecked many of our poor countries and poor communities. Covid 19 as you’re seeing in Ireland, as you’re seeing in England, as you’re seeing in the United States, is wrecking economies. 

“Once again, it’s poor people who will shoulder this crisis.”

Mark said that the experience of HIV was that if “you were white, you lived, if you were black and poor you died”.

It was vital to know the science of the virus, the science of the treatments, but also to popularise that knowledge and use human rights obligations to ensure equality.

“Although you can say that everybody is equally at risk of HIV and equally at risk of Covid 19, the reality was those most at risk of HIV were poor.

“But you could only deal with an issue that is about power, the power of the rich, the power of elites, by building a counter-power of poor people.”

Bernadette said: “While today is a different time, a different context and a very different pandemic…there are significant parallels to be drawn.”

She added: “We’re seeing right across Europe and the United States, that black, minority ethnic and immigrant populations for all kinds of reasons are again the people that this pandemic is killing.

“People say there will be a new normality, so there are opportunities here to shape that.”


On the way forward, Mark looked to history for lessons.

“The only way we are going to prevent this epidemic is by recognising its social and economic determinants.

“When we started TAC, we didn’t have a treatment action campaign, we had a handful of activists who saw what the epidemic was about, saw that the existing civil society organisations were either corrupted or too middle class or too precious to deal with the epidemic, and saw that you would have to build a movement of people who live with HIV, a movement of poor people, a movement of black people, a movement of women, a movement of working class people.”

He said that more had to be done to build connections within communities to mobilise them at local level, while also working nationally and internationally.

Civil society, he argued, had yet to establish an independent voice on the Covid 19 pandemic and he argued that "If we don’t build power quickly, a counter power…we will find ourselves in even deeper trouble".

Both Mark and Bernadette talked about the current state of activism and how important it is was to both learn lessons and engage in critical self-reflection.      

Both felt that we were at a point of having more power than any generation before, but we need to be better organised.  

Drawing on the experience of Black Lives Matter, Mark said that this was a brilliant example of "not playing by the rules anymore, refusing to play the game anymore".  Bernadette reflected on the spontaneous emergence of protests in response to BLM across the island of Ireland.  

We needed to learn from these examples and the many other positive examples that we have seen in response to Covid 19.   

Looking to the future, both offered strategic insights into the questions we need to ask ourselves, cautioning that others had plans and were already putting them in place.  

Bernadette said that we need to define “the point beyond Covid that we want to reach. You can't build a road map if you don't know where you're going.”

Building on this, Mark encouraged us to "re-orient our societies to a different star and that star should be about social justice and equality and human rights". 

 “That is what all of us have to be trying to do.”

  • WATCH the full webinar here: