By Michael Igoe / Al Jazeera

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS, was on her way to the 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal this week when attendants at the airport in Geneva almost refused to allow her to board the plane.

In a tweet Tuesday, Byanyima, who is from Uganda, wrote that she was standing at the gate with her boarding pass in hand while airport personnel repeatedly scrutinized her documents and made phone calls.

“I board last,” she wrote, calling her treatment “Unjust, racist!”

Byanyima was not the only person planning to attend the Canadian event — the first in-person International AIDS Conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began — who found their travel disrupted or blocked by visa denials, boarding problems, or other incidents that often affected people from the global south.

“I was aware that so many people, hundreds actually, have been turned away, some of them after working so hard to make their applications, to pay the fees that they have to pay in advance, to travel long distances, to line up for visas — and they were denied,” Byanyima told Devex.

These reports have cast a shadow over a major international conference aimed at reconnecting a global, inclusive movement at a pivotal moment when the fight against HIV appears to be faltering.

Devex spoke to Byanyima about how to get that fight back on track. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.