Sunday, November 30, 2008

World AIDS Day Monday

Tomorrow the world will mark a day set aside to raise awareness of the epidemic AIDS has been. It will be time again for responsible leadership to draw attention to the easily available ways that the killing illness can be avoided.

In this country, responsible adults will be silenced by the occupied White House in its campaign to enable right wing religious organizations that refuse to acknowledge prevention that does not set abstinence as its major tenet. A celebration last July made a point of showing the harm done.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- On July 5, Beatrice Were, the founder of Uganda's National Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS, stood before hundreds of other HIV-positive women in Nairobi's vaulted city hall and denounced the Bush administration's AIDS policies.

Like many in attendance, Were contracted HIV from her husband, a common occurrence in a region where women make up the majority of new infections and marriage is a primary risk factor. For those like her, the White House's AIDS prevention mantra -- which prescribes abstinence and marital fidelity, with condoms only for "high risk" groups like prostitutes and truck drivers -- is a sick joke.

"We are now seeing a shift in recent years to abstinence only," she said. "We are expected to abstain when we are young girls and to be faithful when we are married to men who rape us, who are not necessarily faithful to us, who batter us." The women in the audience, several waiting to share their own stories of marital rape, applauded.

Were exhorted her audience to "denounce programs that are not evidence-based, that view AIDS as a moral issue, that undermine the issues that affect us, women's rights. I want to be very clear -- the abstinence-only business, women must say no!" Again, there were hollers and applause.

There were lots of voices like Were's in Nairobi last week, where the YWCA sponsored a massive international conference on women and HIV. Yet they rarely seem to break through in the United States, where the conventional wisdom holds that the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is a bright spot in an otherwise execrable presidency, one that only the ideologically blinkered refuse to credit. Nick Kristof seems to repeat this notion in The New York Times every other week, and Bono affirmed it when he insisted on putting Bush on one of the 20 different covers that graced Vanity Fair's special Africa issue. "USA TODAY's Susan Page just got off the telephone with Bono. She says President Bush can count the rock star as a fan today," the newspaper's blog reported in late May. "The Grammy winner was singing the praises of the American president for his announcement today that he would propose spending an additional $30 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa, doubling the U.S. commitment."

For many toiling in the trenches of the pandemic, though, opinions about PEPFAR are far more ambivalent. It's a moral conundrum: how do you weigh lives saved by treatment against lives lost through policies that sabotage prevention?

In less than two months the bizarre figures who have stamped out rationality in the U.S. executive branch will leave. The responsible adults will return. They will face a huge barrier in the personnel implanted in this government by the departing bottomfeeders.

We can celebrate a return to respect for intelligence while taking the lesson learned, that indulging the deficient to the point of giving them power can be fatal.

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