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Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa
Posted on Jun 4, 2007
Harris: We’re talking to Stephanie Nolen. She’s the Africa bureau chief for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, a fine paper. Let’s turn the page a little bit, because you make a good point about HIV/AIDS and Josh also makes a good point that we need to do some homework locally. But let’s talk Darfur for a minute. Here we have a chance—in my mind, at least in my mind—to learn from the mistakes of Rwanda. We’ve lost almost half a million lives—2.5 million people, I believe, have been displaced by the tragedies going on in Darfur. Here we’re talking about genocide, we’re talking about people killing people, yet we haven’t done anything—again. Do you have any sentiments about that?
Nolen: Darfur is really complicated. I’ve been there a couple of times. I was in the first group of four journalists who went in when it all started in 2003. Darfur is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, it’s been hard to intervene. The fact that it’s on the tip of the tongue of every kid walking to school is really progress because, let me tell you, there were some lonely years when nobody wanted to hear about it. But then you’re getting into messy issues of politics. Darfur’s hard because it’s a domestic Sudanese issue. The Sudanese government is incredibly skilled at playing politics and keeping people from getting involved. Short of outright invading, what exactly are you going to do to try and keep the peace there? Well, U.N. forces are a really good idea, but Sudan is selling all kinds of oil to China now, so China has made sure that the Security Council doesn’t act on Darfur. You know, you’re getting, inevitably, into oil and all kinds of international political allegiances, so it’s not quite as simple as people saying, “Wow! We’ve woken up to Darfur being a problem. Let’s do something!” There’s a lot of things standing in the way of a good intervention there.
And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers ... you don’t hear about that one.
Harris: Stephanie, why don’t we have troops on the ground facilitating the deployment of doctors and nurses that these people need to help solve this problem? We can put troops on the ground in Iraq, but we can’t put troops and National Guardsmen and women on the ground in Darfur, in sub-Saharan Africa to help them deal with these catastrophes.
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Harris: Not one to repeat, but you’ve got to wonder the motivation that exists in a government who is one thing in one situation and allows another to exist. ...
Nolen: Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?
Scheer: Well, it’s a culture clash, right? I mean that’s the way the U.S., the government’s based or the culture is based, right? In this country, prostitution is illegal.
Nolen: It’s illegal in all these countries, too, but you have AIDS organizations saying, “We’re not going ... ” —they’re not just saying that it has to be illegal, which it does—they’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.
Nolen: I guess what I was trying to do in the book was to say, I don’t think it’s up to me to come up with ... I don’t know those answers and I don’t think it should be my job to try and figure them out. But I do know there are a whole lot of Africans living in the middle of this pandemic, and it’s like, the scale of it, I think, sometimes gets lost. It’s the biggest disaster to hit humanity since the 1300s. So it’s all about Africans living in the middle of this absolute maelstrom. They have ideas about what the solutions are. They have good ideas about what they need and they have good ideas about the kind of help they want, and they would just like people to be paying attention.
Scheer: You’re talking about bringing people together. What are the African countries willing to do to kind of help? They’re willing to do anything, right? What are they offering ... ?
Scheer: There’s also dread, too. A lot of people didn’t fund it because they thought it was just gay people.
Nolen: Yeah. So there was this real response in Africa that said, “You and your racist allegations. We’re going to pretend that HIV isn’t here.” And so they were slow. And it’s about sex, right? I mean, the conversation I had with Mandela ... while he was president of South Africa, the infection rate in South Africa went from 3 or 4% of the population to 15 or 16%, on his watch. And he spoke publicly about HIV maybe four times while he was in office. And he said, “For me, as an [unintelligible] elder, it’s just not appropriate to talk about sex.” And so you had lots of people who were reticent, who didn’t do what they should have for a long time, and that’s part of the reason it got as bad as it did. But now I can tell you, everywhere that I travel, governments are incredibly, passionately engaged in mounting a response to this. There are some countries with amazing, completely across the board, not just healthcare responses, but education responses and economic responses that they designed themselves, that they’re looking for the help, both the money and the people, to try and mount. And so at this point there isn’t a single place where responding effectively to AIDS is not a top priority of the government. And they just need a lot of different kinds of assistance to do that.
Harris: So 28 million afflicted with AIDS in Africa. You can make a difference. We sit back a lot and wonder how we can make a change. Be the leader you want other people to be. For Josh Scheer, for Stephanie Nolen, the African bureau chief for the Toronto’s Globe and Mail, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.
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