Coffins, campaigns and commitments: Waging a worldwide fight against AIDS

Some 42 million men, women and children are living with HIV and AIDS worldwide. Last year, 5 million people were newly infected with the disease, while 3.1 million people lost their lives to AIDS — a number slightly larger than the entire population of Chicago, Illinois.

Many members of Congress from both parties have spent years trying to call attention to this crisis at home and abroad and to direct desperately needed resources toward fighting the pandemic. But for many, the statistics are so overwhelming that they become numbing.

A little more than a year ago, as I traveled through Botswana and South Africa as part of a delegation to Africa, a senior government official confided that whenever she travels from her busy capital to her home district, she loads up a large van with coffins and tents, and spends her time helping her constituents, one after another, bury their loved ones and grieve for their dead.

She attends funerals, not parades. She gives away coffins, not bumper stickers. These are the politics of Africa in the era of AIDS.

The reality of this gut-wrenching crisis surrounded us everywhere. In Soweto, South Africa, once at the heart of resistance to apartheid, we met courageous community leaders who have taken up a new cause. They refuse to be held hostage to government policies that fail to acknowledge the magnitude of the AIDS crisis, and are busily organizing a network of community support groups, public awareness-raising activities and services for the dying and orphaned.

It took the United States far too long to join in the epic South African struggle against racism. We must not fail these courageous fighters again.

In virtually every town, village and meeting place we visited, we heard the elevated expectations of a world desperate to believe in our nation’s pledge to join the worldwide fight against this terrible disease.

But our nation’s historic commitment cannot succeed without incorporating several key elements in its implementation.

Prevention efforts are at the core of any credible strategy to fight AIDS, but we must increase access to treatment with life-extending anti-retroviral drugs, giving hope to the hopeless and keeping families together rather than adding to the tragic number of AIDS orphans.

We must work to empower women in the region, so that they can make the choices that will protect them and their daughters from infection. We must help countries develop the laboratories and personnel needed to respond to this crisis on a massive scale — the lack of trained personnel in the most AIDS-affected countries makes our own serious nursing shortage pale in comparison. We must establish clear goals, and then ensure that the U.S. government and the countries we aid are held accountable for meeting them. 

And finally, we must not allow the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria to languish like a half-formulated thought, starved of the resources that can help to make its vision a reality. The fund was established to leverage the dollars of donors and help us all get the most for our money. The United States, as the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, should make good on President Bush’s pledge, take the lead in securing resources to fight the global AIDS pandemic, and make a serious commitment to the fund.

World events are asking a great deal of the American people these days. The fight against terrorism is, rightly, the United States’ first priority. But as AIDS spreads, unraveling social structures and decimating populations, the national-security implications for the United States multiply — in number as well as in intensity. In the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a man who knows a thing or two about both war and peace, AIDS is the “No. 1 threat facing the world today” because this disease “has the power to reverse opportunities for peace and freedom and encourage tyranny and poverty.”

While we continue the war against terror, we cannot afford to neglect the other critically important global struggle currently being waged worldwide — the fight against AIDS.

Durbin is the Senate majority whip.