BY LEEZA ARAKELIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jirair Ratevosian, MPH—an Armenian-American advocate for global health and human rights—has been appointed by President Joe Biden to serve in the State Department’s Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Global Health Diplomacy.
Ratevosian is taking on the role of senior advisor, where he will help oversee the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—the leading, lifesaving program that has invested nearly $85 billion in the global HIV/AIDS response.
“Working at PEPFAR is an opportunity to carry forward a lifetime mission of pursuing health equity and social justice,” read Ratevosian’s statement following his swearing-in at the U.S. State Department on Monday morning. “Thanks to U.S. leadership and continued bipartisan support, tremendous progress has been made in the fight against AIDS, but the work is far from over.”
An experienced leader in domestic and global HIV diplomacy, Ratevosian has announced that he will be working on developing PEPFAR’s strategy, strengthening partnerships with U.S. governmental agencies and supporting coordination efforts with bilateral and multilateral institutions, like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. “I look forward to working with our country partners and stakeholder communities in service of President Biden and PEPFAR’s lifesaving mission,” he shared on Monday.
Ratevosian has always appreciated President Biden’s record on HIV/AIDS, and it’s clear the respect has been mutual. Last summer, he wrote an op-ed in which he recalled his parents meeting the then-presidential candidate. “Folks, the work your son is doing…it is really saving lives all around the world,” Mr. Biden told the Ratevosian family in May 2019. “It was the kind of affirmation that any young gay person dreams of, and somehow Joe knew exactly what my parents needed to hear,” wrote Ratevosian before enumerating Biden’s decades-long support and Congressional leadership on major global health initiatives, including the establishment of PEPFAR in 2003. In line with his campaign promise and in addition to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden is still committed to ending the AIDS crisis. In its Fiscal Year 2022 Budget, the White House called on Congress to approve $670 million in funding to help reduce HIV cases and increase and ensure access to treatment.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Ratevosian was always interested in the field of healthcare. A son of immigrants from Lebanon and Armenia, he recalls growing up with his paternal grandfather—his namesake, a proud community organizer and small-business owner. At a young age, Ratevosian learned the importance of community engagement and ultimately adopted his grandfather’s spirit of activism.
Following his graduation from UCLA, Ratevosian went on an eye-opening trip to South Africa in 2004 just as the international community began concentrating its resources on HIV awareness, prevention and treatment. “The impact of the HIV epidemic was everywhere in South Africa,” recalled Ratevosian in his recent conversation with the Weekly. “That shaped the way I thought about my own role on the planet and what I wanted to do with my life and why I wanted to be involved in something that reduced human suffering. Public health was the pathway for me to do that.”
Since then, Ratevosian, a graduate of Boston University’s School of Public Health, has made HIV/AIDS a focal point of his 15-year career. He worked with U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a notable champion in the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic and an original author of PEPFAR. During his three years on the Hill, Ratevosian witnessed a critical expansion to PEPFAR and the creation of a bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, which Congresswoman Lee co-chairs. “Jirair’s deep experience, including his service as my Legislative Director, will be a tremendous asset to the Biden administration in strengthening PEPFAR and all our global health and development priorities,” stated Congresswoman Lee in her written comments to the Weekly. “Because of programs like PEPFAR, we have saved millions of lives across the globe, and I look forward to working with President Biden and Jirair and building from PEPFAR’s success to bring broader health security benefits for all.”
Before accepting his current position at the State Department, Ratevosian spent seven years at Gilead Sciences, leading an international team that developed public health solutions for hepatitis in Pakistan, Armenia, Egypt and Rwanda; he also led in building lasting partnerships for access to HIV medications for populations in South Africa.
“I’ve always seen HIV as a human rights issue. We know that it’s very much a challenge, not only across Africa, but also in other regions, including in Armenia. These are issues that we can’t just ignore as Armenians in the Diaspora,” urged Ratevosian, who has always advocated for Armenia’s marginalized LGBTQ communities and public awareness surrounding the spread of HIV and AIDS in the homeland.
A lifelong student of public health, Ratevosian is concurrently pursuing a doctoral degree in health diplomacy from Johns Hopkins University, where he is studying the rollout of COVID-19 vaccine access in four countries, including Armenia. Colleagues, like Jennifer Kates—a member of Ratevosian’s dissertation advisory committee and the director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation—commend his unmatched experience across public, private and social sectors. “Jirair is not only someone with a long-standing and deep commitment to ending HIV, he brings unparalleled and unique skills to this position,” expressed Kates in her written comments to the Weekly. “Jirair knows the issues, the challenges and the stakeholders. Having him step into this role now will help steer PEPFAR forward at this critical time in the fight against HIV,” she concluded.
As he takes on this new post at the State Department, Ratevosian told the Weekly he would like to see more Armenians join him in representing a more robust workforce in government and public service. “We all have a role to play in our future,” he underscored in his parting comments about global citizenship, diversity and inclusion, “I think more Armenians need to see public service as a viable career path that is rewarding and fulfilling and ultimately will help make the world a better place.”