Daring to care about the folks "over there"

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AIDS is killing Africa. Unless the United States does something to help, it will only be a matter of time before the AIDS crisis boomerangs across the water and mows us down all over again.

Maybe this time we’ll act right.

Once, AIDS was written off as the gay men’s disease. It was terrible, but it happened "over there" to "those people," so most "normal" people didn’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about it.

But then heterosexuals started developing the disease, and the "normal" people became worried — until we learned that most of those heterosexuals were drug addicts who got the disease from sharing needles and doing other unclean things under cover of darkness. "Normal" people sighed in relief. Their morality clearly intact, they had once again been spared the embarrassment of having to confront a disease that was associated with "those people over there."

All was well in the land.

Well, almost.

Then people started showing up with symptoms of the disease who were neither gay nor drug addicts. Some were even women. "Normal" people everywhere began to panic. Why weren’t they being spared? There was much anguish and gnashing of teeth.

Fortunately, those bad old days have passed us by. These days, all we Americans have to do is look at someone such as Magic Johnson who, although he never developed full-blown AIDS — he’s HIV-positive — still represents the face of AIDS that Americans are comfortable with. As opposed to those homosexuals, drug users and others that the self-appointed morality police have deemed unworthy to live, folks such as Johnson actually matter in this world. Popular folks are considered worth saving, and have therefore made it easier to stir up the old national conscience required to prevail upon our legislators that HIV/AIDS really is worth doing something about.

Now the situation in Africa is beginning to attract the kind of attention that it should have received years ago. Why? Because HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa has gotten so bad that President Clinton has been left with no choice but to declare it a threat to our national security.

No, you heard me right. It’s the first time in history that such an action has ever been taken — or required — to deal with a disease. To understand why Clinton and other federal officials are worried, consider that more than 60 percent of all the people who have died from AIDS since the 1980s were located in sub-Saharan Africa. New infections are occurring there at the rate of nearly 5,000 per day, according to the World Health Organization, and more than half of those are occurring in South Africa. South Africa, where 1 in 10 — or 4.3 million — residents are already HIV-positive, has one of the world’s fastest-growing HIV/AIDS epidemics; it’s anticipated to infect as many as 6 million residents within 5 years. And if you think that’s bad, by 2010, India’s rate of infection just might surpass Africa’s. This has the potential to wipe out entire ranks of much-needed future workforces and, just for good measure, destabilize governments that are already on the edge.

It’s estimated that to fund adequate prevention efforts and treatment in Africa will cost about $4 billion. Sure, that’s a lot of cash, but consider what happens if we do nothing. Do you really think the epidemic and its ramifications will politely keep itself confined to "over there?"

South African President Thabo Mbeki has stirred up considerable controversy by siding with a handful of discredited scientists and questioning the established link between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki also says, essentially, that a Western approach to the HIV/AIDS crisis won’t work in Africa, and that Africa needs to come up with its own solution that fits better with the numerous different cultures located there, some of which are worlds apart from the West. I understand Mbeki’s willingness — motivated by desperation — to consider scientific opinion that is outside the officially accepted realm and to push for an African solution for African people. I also think it’s unrealistic of him to think that a continent that is as impoverished as Africa can develop a solution to its own HIV/AIDS crisis without any outside assistance.

Granted, just throwing billions of dollars at the problem won’t solve it. A massive educational and informational campaign is required as well, just for starters. But without those billions of dollars, there is absolutely no chance for any HIV/AIDS prevention method to work in Africa. No way. Which is why some Western pharmaceutical companies have agreed to dramatically cut the prices of the drugs they provide to African countries. If they hadn’t agreed to do so, then Africa wouldn’t be able to afford much of the medicine it needs for its people to survive. Mbeki has already prevented such AIDS combative drugs as AZT from being dispensed in his country because he says they cost too much. One only needs to see the healthy looking Johnson to see the effect of being able to afford all the right drugs.

In this age of globalization, the world is getting smaller all the time. It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the boundary between your problems and mine, between Michigan’s problems and those of any other state, between those of the United States and those of an AIDS-ravaged African country. One of these days we’re going to have to care about each other even if it kills us.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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