At a lecture on global health last fall at the Yale School of Public Health, audience member and AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves ’11 accused Yalies of being too apathetic to take a stand against HIV/AIDS. Three others in the audience, David Carel ’13, Jared Augenstein SPH ’12 and Nicholas DeVito SPH ’12 saw his impassioned comment as a challenge, one they met by forming the Student Global Health and AIDS Coalition (SGHAC) just a few weeks later.
The group, founded by Carel, Gonsalves, Augenstein, DeVito and other interested students, has about 40 members at Yale and advocates for increased federal funding to fight global diseases, especially AIDS. According to Carel, while SGHAC believes getting the message out to the general public is important, it focuses on securing money for global health programs by putting pressure on policymakers in Washington. To do this, they have written op-eds in the News and other publications, held protests and met with staffers of members of Congress.
A few weeks after its inception, the group protested President Barack Obama’s failure to fund AIDS to the extent he promised to during his 2008 campaign by sneaking big banners and signs into a rally in Bridgeport, Conn., on Oct. 30, 2011. They were escorted out by security after unveiling their signs, which carried slogans such as “Broken promises kill. Fund global AIDS,” but not before Obama went off-script and took a few minutes to acknowledge their concerns.
The group built momentum two weeks later, when Ezekiel Emanuel, an advisor to Obama on health policy, came to speak at the Yale Law School.
“I knew he was getting breakfast at the Slifka Center, so I found him and had a sort of yelling argument with him during our meal,” said Carel, who can rattle off statistics about the latest research on the effectiveness of AIDS medication (it reduces the probability of transmission by 96 percent) and how many people are on AIDS medication funded by the United States (currently, about $4 million).
After breakfast, Carel said he and a few friends “chased [Emanuel] down Wall Street all the way to the Law School” to continue their discussion. As Emanuel arrived and delivered his speech, AIDS activists protested outside the Law School.
Carel said he knew that Emanuel was “incredibly stubborn” and would not be persuaded by Carel’s arguments, but he was more concerned with the ensuing media coverage.
According to Augenstein, politicians do not appreciate the urgency of global health funding because it does not directly impact their constituents.
“I don’t see [economic problems] as anything but an excuse to cut funding,” DeVito said. “It’s such a small part of the budget, and they’re just a scapegoat to avoid talking about the real budgetary problems. The real budget deficit comes from things like wars and social security, not prescribing people AIDS medication.”
Members have also been meeting with staffers for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is a key player in budget negotiations in the House of Representatives, Carel said. The House’s current proposed version of the federal budget related to health and human services proposes cuts $300 million of funding from international AIDS programs.
On Oct. 11, 2011, SGHAC members demonstrated outside the Republican presidential candidate debate at Dartmouth with the intention of forcing the candidates to discuss the issue at the debate. Carel also followed Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire and spoke with him and his chief of staff, he said.
Ultimately, the group’s protests, lobbying, letter-writing and op-ed writing are all part of a coordinated effort to show policymakers that global health funding, for AIDS as well as other diseases, merits a role in budgetary planning, Helen Jack ’12 said.
“Lots of people are all about direct service and immediate gratification,” Jack said. “But as an activist, you have to realize that you are one small piece of the puzzle. Each protest and each op-ed is part of a larger pressure that contributes to change.”
SGHAC members joined forces with the Harvard chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, an advocacy group with chapters at over 50 universities worldwide, to plan the Bridgeport protest.