At the time, amid increased prosperity and personal freedom, Ukraine’s Aids crisis was a growing storm. I was playing a free concert partly to underscore what I had learned in so many other countries – that awareness and compassion are essential in fighting this disease. I shouted from the stage, Zupinimo Snid razom! (Let’s end Aids together).
And that’s what we set out to do.
Over the following 15 years, even as new HIV infections rocketed across eastern Europe and central Asia as a whole, they decreased in Ukraine by more than half, and Aids-related deaths fell by 81%. During those years, my Aids foundation was proud to work alongside national efforts, donating more than $9m to fund 55 projects in Ukraine to ensure those living with, or at risk of, HIV had access to life-saving testing, treatment and healthcare services.
It has been a source of joy to see these programmes flourish, and to meet healthy young people who were once at death’s door now ready for their future.
But today, it is a tragically different story. It’s been one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and unleashed horrific destruction against the Ukrainian people. Since 24 February 2022, more than 18,000 civilians have lost their lives and as many as 8m Ukrainians have been forced to flee the country.
The Ukrainian people have responded to this appalling assault with incredible courage and resilience, and millions of people around the world have shown generosity and compassion to mitigate this tragedy.
For me, I go back to the promise I made on that spring night: that I, and my foundation, would always do everything we could to fight Aids in Ukraine. Among so many competing needs, and buried behind much damage and loss, are an estimated 250,000 Ukrainians living with HIV, and more than 600,000 people in communities that are thought to be at risk.
Working over the past year, we have seen how great the need is to simply “keep the lights on” for these communities. Since the start of the war, we have awarded more than $1m to community organisations across Ukraine, organisations that are often below the radar of wider multilateral support. We have funded 44 shelters across 21 cities and 16 regions to provide crucial humanitarian aid to people living with and affected by HIV. We provided each shelter with the specific equipment they needed to give uninterrupted refuge and services to cover gaps in their resources.
This support ranges from generators, fuel, sleeping bags, mats and powerbanks, to heating and cooking appliances. Organisations we work with have reported back that with this support, shelters and daily centres have become “hubs of hope” where people in need sought not only HIV-related services but also “a place with light, tea, heating, telephone connection and a helping hand”.
This support keeps people alive, but it isn’t enough. Which is why now, on the anniversary of the invasion, I am announcing new funding. We want to ensure the efforts of the past decade and a half have not been in vain.
My foundation is awarding funds to the Ukrainian Public Health Centre’s HIV programme, through United24, to ensure that all people living with HIV in the country can continue to access the life-saving care they need. The Public Health Centre, in partnership with communities, has done an incredible job in the face of massive challenges to keep the HIV care system going. We are proud to support their efforts to continue the operation of clinics that deliver vital services. For us, it is not a question of prioritising HIV over other needs, but of including all; of making sure no one gets left behind.
With every news bulletin, I imagine those 300,000 concert-goers in Kyiv facing the constant terror of living in a war zone. I think of them trying to survive with HIV or worse, while they are dying of Aids-related illnesses. This is where my foundation can be of the most practical help. The Aids fight has always required recognising people’s humanity and dignity; showing compassion for suffering, and pulling together, not apart.
As my life of touring comes to an end this summer, I do not know when, if ever, I will stand on a stage in Ukraine again, as I did on that beautiful night in 2007. But my promise still stands – I will do everything I can, wherever I can, to fight for the agency and health of people at risk of HIV, all in the hope that one day we will end Aids everywhere, for everyone, for good.
- Elton John is an entertainer, humanitarian and singer/songwriter. He is the founder of the Elton John Aids Foundation