Western inertia is nailing the coffin shut for Africa, says Lewis

Through its lack of meaningful action, the Western world is, in effect, sealing the coffin of the continent of Africa – especially for its women. That was the message delivered at York by Stephen Lewis (left), the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Lewis was the closing keynote speaker on June 3 for the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held at York. He delivered his comments along with a call to arms for delegates and researchers to move from research to action. Lewis did not hold back in his criticism of Western nations for their inaction in providing effective assistance to the people of sub-Saharan Africa who are living and dying in the throes of HIV/AIDS.

The background for Lewis’ lecture is the encroaching realization that the Western world will fail to meet eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. The goals — which range from reducing extreme poverty by half and halting the spread of HIV/AIDs, to providing universal primary education — form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. In particular, Lewis is livid about the plight of women in sub-Saharan Africa and the West’s lack of timely and appropriate response to the crisis caused by HIV/AIDS.

“The AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has a woman’s face,” said Lewis. “There are 25 million people between the ages of 25 and 49 living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Fifty-eight per cent of those people are women, young women who die in vastly disproportionate numbers and in the most appallingly painful and desolate circumstances.”

There is a visible lack of effective response to the crisis by the West, said Lewis, which as a result will leave more than 20 million children at risk of being without one or both of their parents by the year 2010 because of AIDS. “There is a failure of governments and to a degree the United Nations to respond adequately to the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in general,” said Lewis. “My comments are delivered in the wake of the most recent effort to design a declaration in response to a meeting to address the progress, or lack of progress, made over the last five years since much of the world got together to confront the virus.”

Right: The face of HIV/AIDS in Africa is reflected in the face of a young girl dying of the virus. The original photo was taken in Zambia in 2002. Photo courtesy of WPR

Last week, negotiations over an updated version of the United Nations’ “declaration of commitment” on AIDS was stymied in battles over the document’s language involving a number of countries, the reluctance of the United States to have specific global targets spelled out in detail and the refusal by partner countries to adopt benchmarks to measure progress.

Lewis stated that as a result, MDGs will be compromised by half due to the world’s inaction on HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The UN declaration that was finally reached on June 2 about HIV/AIDS was “watered down,” said Lewis. It was held up because delegates argued for three days about having the words “safe injection sites” and “condoms” incorporated in a document which talked of abstinence and fidelity as the best route to prevention. “No precise treatment goals were outlined and no interim targets by which countries such as the United States could be held accountable were incorporated into the declaration. The document is dishonest because governments are not being held responsible,” said Lewis, his voice rising. “I’m too old for this nonsense, I need another job. This document does not address the realities of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa where abstinence and faithfulness do not work.”

There is more energy involved in bringing people together for conferences, meetings and declarations than in bringing people together to stop “the evisceration” of a continent”, said Lewis. “Twenty-five million people have already died of the virus, and 65 million people have been infected. By the year 2012, the UN projects that over 100 million people will have died or been infected by HIV, and people talk about the bird flu as being apocalyptic. This is the apocalypse now!”

Lewis said the UN’s new declaration does contain a few slivers of hope, with rates of new infections stabilizing in some countries at 5 per cent. The reality, though, is that infection rates are still between 45 and 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. The rapidly rising rates of new infections in rural India, which has surpassed Africa at 2.7 million new infections, and the concern that Russia is quickly moving into the top three countries with skyrocketing infection rates, provides little comfort.

“We are entering a catastrophic situation in China, India and Russia. South Africa is the epicentre of the infection, things are not getting better and Africa is fighting for its very survival with 5.5 million infected in South Africa alone. The numbers also are inching up in antenatal clinics,” said Lewis. “It has now become obvious that none of the MDGs will be reached in these countries and if any of them are reached it’s purely incidental.”

He cited a huge discrepancy in antenatal care, with pregnant mothers in sub-Saharan Africa not receiving access to a simple injection of neviripine, an anti-HIV drug which is also administered as a syrup to newborns. In the West, newborn infection rates in babies born to HIV positive mothers have been virtually eliminated by the drug. In Africa, 99 per cent of the newborns born to HIV-positive mothers are infected. “Fifty per cent of these children will die before the age of two, 80 per cent before the age of seven,” said Lewis, “Why is the life of a child in the West more valuable than that of an African child? The remaining children don’t go to school because they work to support the family and ridiculous school fees imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and uniform and textbook fees make it impossible for families to afford to send their children to school.”

Lewis urged researchers to examine the substandard treatment given to women and young girls, many of whom are victims of rape, and highlighted figures that show an increase in rapes for women over the age of 65 because their longevity was a good indicator that they were free from AIDS. “If ever there was an argument for a feminist analysis it is in the way women in Africa are treated,” said Lewis.

Women make up more than half the world’s population and play roles in peacekeeping and peace-making, said Lewis, and yet they are subjected to inhumane treatment, denied important drugs during pregnancy and delivery, and are routinely raped and assaulted. “Girls as young as 12 are now repeatedly raped in sub-Saharan Africa and yet there has never been an international agency created for women,” said Lewis. “There’s one for everything else. The level of HIV/AIDS in women exposes the massive hypocrisy of the Western world and political leaders cannot be allowed to make one continent expendable.”

Lewis expressed his view that Canada is a good country and its political leadership and academic community could transcend the global inertia on HIV/AIDS. He issued a challenge for all of those present in the Research in Society lecture to do just that.

More about Stephen Lewis

Stephen Lewis is one of Canada’s most respected commentators on social affairs, international development and human rights. Maclean’s magazine chose him as its inaugural Canadian of the Year in 2003 and in 2005 TIME magazine named him one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” (in the same category as the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela). Lewis is also the recipient of the Pearson Peace Medal for his outstanding achievements in the field of international service and understanding.

In 2001, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Lewis as his special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Stephen Lewis Foundation, of which he is the director, is similarly dedicated to easing the pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Lewis is also currently a commissioner for the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health.

From 1995 to 1999, as deputy executive director of UNICEF at their global headquarters in New York, Lewis was a spokesperson for UNICEF’s advocacy of the rights and needs of children, especially children of the developing world. In 1997, he was appointed by the Organization of African Unity to a Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the Genocide in Rwanda. The “Rwanda Report” was issued in June of 2000. From 1984 through 1988, Lewis was Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, where he chaired such groundbreaking committees as the Five-Year UN Program on African Economic Recovery and the first International Conference on Climate Change.

Lewis, who is a race-relations arbitrator, holds 20 honorary degrees from Canadian universities. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University in 1984. He has been appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest honour for lifetime achievement.