Seeking a Global Response to Aids Crisis in Africa

By Artemus W. Gaye

The Perspective

Atlanta, Georgia

March 20, 2002

HIV/AIDS is a word everyone dreads. It is loaded with so much shock and horror. For those infected and affected mainly in Africa, it’s a nightmare, a tragedy and ultimate death sentence. A BBC article of July 2000 titled, AIDS effect ‘like Black Death,’ noted: “It would be the first time countries have experienced shrinking populations due to a disease since the Black Death” decimated the population of Europe in the 1300s. It was bubonic plague transmitted by rodents to humans. An estimated 25 million people perished and it took three centuries before the population of Europe recovered.

To date, HIV/AIDS is humanity’s single most deadly crisis, surpassing the Black Death. Sadly enough, sub-Sahara Africa is the most affected region of the world. A United Nations estimate confirms that 24.5 million people in Africa have HIV or full-blown AIDS. That is 70% of the world total 34.3 million infected people. But the most recent report in the British Medical Journal claims that 25 million people have already died from AIDS since the early 1980s and puts the figure of current HIV infected people to 40 million.

The situation is even worse as one examines Africa’s current situation of unparallel proportion. No one can deny the effect slavery, colonialism, and numerous civil wars have had on the continent. Compounding this complex situation are undemocratic and pariah governments that have added to the miseries of their people through corruption and lack of positive vision for nation- building. In addition, poverty, and huge international debts have left this region in a complete state of paralysis. This means Aids will kill more people than all the combined brutal civil wars on the continent.

According to United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO) joint report on HIV/AIDS, 7 out of 10 people newly infected with HIV live in sub-Sahara Africa. In addition, of all deaths since the epidemic started, 83% have been in sub-Sahara Africa. At least 95% of all Aids orphans have been Africans. Yet, “only one-tenth of all the world’s population lives in Africa south of the Sahara”, the report concluded.

Young Africans are at risk since they are sexually active. Adding to this threat is the rise of teenage pregnancy, unprotected sex, sexual exploitation, the break down of traditional family and social values, and rural to urban migration in search of jobs in large cities have served as catalysts to this endemic. The result is a massive lost of human resources.

In East and Southern Africa where the disease have impacted the population on a larger scale, it is common for children to be primary care givers to their younger siblings or dying parents. Hence, Africa is now the ‘Orphaned Continent.’ This conjures the image of a one-year-old kid seated on the lap of his four years old playmate in an orphanage, while they cry and long for an affectionate hug and kiss from a mother or father who never appears.

Furthermore, there is a growing stigma or fear causing people to avoid testing for HIV and a strong denial of the existence of HIV/AIDS. An example is the case of South Africa, the most infected country in the world. A UN report indicated that everyday, at least 1500 people are newly infected with HIV. Four million are already HIV positive. Here the government of Thabo Mbeki has blocked the provision of anti-retroviral drugs, combination of medication that slow Aids progression. His controversial stance on AIDS as to whether HIV-the human immunodeficiency virus actually causes AIDS has met domestic and international criticism. During the 13th International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa in July of 2001, the testimony of Nkosi Johnson, The 12-year-old boy captured worldwide attention when he lambasted the leadership in that country for its handling of the Aids crisis.

On the other hand, the AIDS pandemic is made even worse with the high rate of poverty in Africa in which “290 million Africans survive on less than one US dollar”, an AIDS activist said. Unlike developed nations where AIDS drugs are available and accessible thus controlling the impact of AIDS, sub-Sahara Africa is on the verge of total collapse. The disparities permeate the concept of treatment and the philosophy of the market place. Simply said, the African people cannot afford the cost of drugs since the pharmaceutical companies are driven by big profit. These multi-national firms also maintained tight grip on international patent rights that prevent the manufacturing and availability of cheaper generic brands.

This AIDS dilemma in Africa is portrayed in this poetry from a British Broad Casting Corporation article titled, ‘AIDS in Africa’ written by Beatrice Were:

WE have waited for long
Now we hear in Europe and America there is medication.
It is called HAART or ARV. They swallow it for free of charge.
But in Africa where we are dying in big numbers.
We don’t see this medication.
We can’t swallow it for free.
One would need about $1000 a month.
Lord you know we don’t have the dollars.
As we wait, some lives seem more important than others.
Yet you said in your eyes we are all equal.
Lord we have lost too many.

As one examines the state of affairs in Africa, it almost seemed hopeless. For skeptics and pessimists, sub-Sahara Africa is a dinosaur on the brink of extinction. Scary indeed! But all is not lost. Thanks to organizations and people like the United Methodist Church through its many agencies and leaders who have made the African crisis a battle cry worth fighting for. Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church continues to advocate for Africa by asking the United States government to become proactive in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He perceived this disease to be even worst than the threat of terrorism. Ishwar Gilada, Secretary General of the Peoples Health Organization of India, echoes this outcry further. “AIDS is a public enemy number one and we must treat it as such. If we don’t treat AIDS as a battlefront, we will lose the war.” He said.

In the case of the UMC through its General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the Church invests over $12 billion dollars on behalf of its employees and members in corporations that are expected to have positive impact on the global society. This makes the Church to have the largest single denominational investment funds. Since it owns shares or stocks in some of these multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies, the Church through its Social Responsibility Committee is monitoring and challenging these corporations to provide free or low costs drugs for people in Africa and other struggling nations who are hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic.

One person involved in this initiative is Ms. Vidette Mixon who serves as Director of Corporate Relations at the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. In her appeal to these pharmaceutical giants, Abbott, Merck, and Pfizer have begun implementing several projects in some African countries by distributing antiretroviral drugs free of charge. Merck for example, is exploring ways to help grass root organizations that are providing care for people infected with HIV/AIDS. This indeed is a striking alliance between the Church, one of the strong pillars of the community, and the drug companies. This is a fulfillment of a Biblical Scripture: “ I was naked and you give me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. Truly I tell you, just as you did for the least of these who are my family members, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25: 36, 40. New Revised Standard Version).

In spite of the positive gesture that is beginning to take roots, the lack of adequate health care facilities are of major concern in sub Sahara Africa. In addition, there is need for good public education on HIV/AIDS that can reach all sectors of the population. This means that there must be a political will by governments to actively participate in this global campaign. Two laudable cases are that of Senegal and Uganda, where the governments continue to work closely with existing organizations in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Therefore, hope is not lost for Africa and all struggling nations hit hardest by HIV/AIDS. The challenge is before all of humanity: religious and non-governmental organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and wealthy and poor nations. As in the word of Martin Luther King Jr., “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience but where they stand at times of challenge and inconvenience.”

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