“In the United States, we need to get beyond only fags being involved in fighting AIDS. We need to get people of color involved and we need to get youth involved.”
That was a prescription offered this week at the Columbia University School of Public Health by Nonkosi Khumalo, the coordinator of women’s health at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the leading AIDS activist group in South Africa.
As our cover story details, Khumalo and her colleague Zackie Achmat, both of whom embrace politically impolite language in the service of making their point, were in town this week to meet with their counterparts in the American AIDS movement—at Columbia, at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, at Doctors Without Borders, in Harlem, and at numerous other venues.
Their message was an unabashed endorsement of internationalism as the key to tackling a crisis that now affects 4.5 million in their homeland and more than 40 million people worldwide.
Their emphasis on a global solution involved several familiar themes, but also some that offered fresh perspectives.
Achmat was particularly critical of the Bush administration for its unwillingness to throw its lot in with the United Nations Global AIDS Fund which he argued offers the most efficient vehicle for getting prevention and treatment funds and expertise into the nations and communities most in need. He clearly views the administration’s go-it-alone approach as part of a foreign policy that has also brought this nation to its current debacle in Iraq.
TAC has also been a leading proponent of international efforts to counter the powerful pharmaceutical lobby that has blocked efforts to speed production of generic drugs that offer developing nations needed relief at an affordable cost.
But, Khumalo and Achmat emphasized as well the need for a global discussion in which activists and public health advocates can listen to each other and learn from the successes of others. In the wake of the announcement this week of a formal treatment plan being implemented by the South African government, Khumalo spoke proudly of the “example” her country can provide for other developing nations.
But Achmat was candid in also confessing the limitations of thinking in South Africa, where the president, Thabo Mbeki, has aligned himself with HIV “denialists” who dispute the scientific fact of the link between infection and AIDS. Though he has been a consistent and harsh critic of the South African president, Achmat spoke with great compassion about why AIDS denialism has been so seductive in his nation.
“Mbeki does not want a vision of South Africa that sees us with our hands out, which sees us as sick people, which sees us as sexually promiscuous,” Achmat explained at Columbia, even as he playfully suggested that his nation’s president may have spent too much time as a young man studying in Britain. “He wants to see South Africa as a good English gentleman would.”
Achmat had zeroed in on the cultural limitations that all of us as human beings have brought to our thinking, our discussion, and our public policies about AIDS. Those limitations have held us back, they have led to prejudice and neglect, and they have resulted in deaths.
It is well past time for our global community to have an open, honest, and fearless discussion about AIDS and what we must do to get the pandemic under control. The examples offered by Achmat and Khumalo this week in New York helped show the way.