Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa
Posted on Jun 4, 2007
Stephanie Nolen, the last Western journalist covering the AIDS beat in Africa, tells Truthdig it is unfortunate but true that the more people die, the less people care, which is why she has decided to get personal with a new book that approaches the crisis from a different perspective.
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Stephanie Nolen: It’s absolutely true. I don’t actually know why. And I know that Kristof was responding to some new research that’s just come out that pinpoints that, in fact, this is really true in people. You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true. And that’s actually what drove me to the book ... is that I can tell you that 28 million people are living with the virus in Africa. To some degree I can understand, because that’s paralyzing, it’s numbing. I’m Canadian, right? That’s the population of my whole country. What does that even mean? You flick on the evening news, you hear someone say that, and you turn it off again.
And so what I tried to do in the book was to tell the stories of individual people. It’s 28 individual people, so one for each million. But forget about the numbers and forget about who they represent. But here’s what it is, here’s what life is like. And I think, particularly when you’re dealing with Africa, what you have to do for people is say, not just forget the numbers, but also, you know, sure their lives look different. There’s people in this book [who] live in a little grass house and they walk five miles every day to get water or firewood. And, you know, they’re raising eight kids. Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.
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Scheer: Is that why you wrote the book in this way? Because usually you get a report from like the U.N. or you get a report from WHO and it’s impersonal. Was this to make it personal so that people can be on the same page?
Nolen: Yes, it’s definitely to take people past the numbers and to say that, you know, when you talk about these crazy statistics, you’re actually talking about real people. Also, though, because there are people who are in the book whose stories are there because they help you understand the political, the economics, the medical. So there’s a truck driver and he’s a way of looking at how the virus spreads, and there’s a soldier who’s a way of looking at the relationship with conflict in Africa. But it’s also because there were individual people that I wanted to make sure ... you know, people I’ve met in four years of doing this job, who have fought these amazing and courageous battles with no support, you know, ostracized by their own communities, and also with no support from the outside world. They’ve taken on their governments, our governments, big pharma. ... Those go almost unrecorded and we just don’t hear those stories. There are these amazing stories of courage and resilience that are just, you know, being lost as the pandemic goes on and on. And I thought there should also be a record of those.
Scheer: You are only one of three reporters covering this, so you’d probably be the best one to answer this. But what do you think, from being there so long, can be done? And what has to be done?
Nolen: OK, well, here’s the thing: I’m now down to being one. We used to be three and, I don’t know, it must be something I said, but now I’m the last reporter, the last Western journalist covering the pandemic.
Harris: What happened to the other two guys?
Nolen: What happened to the other two? I don’t know ... they just got reassigned by their newspapers.
Nolen: You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes. We forget that a lot of these countries were doing real well; you know, Botswana had a higher life expectancy than Russia in the early 1990s. So they’re countries that were doing really well that had the rug pulled from under them from HIV. We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.
I guess in terms of what has to be done, there’s a lot more awareness than there was when I started doing this. You know, the Gap’s making a T-shirt for AIDS in Africa now, so clearly there’s progress.
Nolen: And there’s a lot more money available than there was. At the same time, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, which is the prime funding body, is about to do another round of proposals where African countries say, “This is what we need to fight AIDS.” They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?
And especially when we talk about orphans, you’ve got 14 million kids who were orphaned by HIV. I had this conversation a little while ago with Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel, because they are grandparents raising orphans, raising their orphaned grandchildren. They lost kids to HIV and, you know, they say it’s the single biggest problem and the one people just aren’t paying enough attention to. What do you do about a whole generation of kids who grow up without parents? What do they look like as adults? We don’t know. And again, that’s not an easy one. It’s not easy to raise $6.8 billion, for sure, but it’s even harder to figure what you do with 14 million kids without parents.
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