UN envoy for AIDS in Africa paints gloomy picture for House of Bishops

October 1, 2002

'The AIDS pandemic is still in its infancy,' warned Stephen Lewis, special envoy for the secretary general of the United Nations in Africa, in a speech at the Cleveland meeting of the House of Bishops on October 1. 'And it could spread rapidly to other places on the globe.'

Describing his first year in his position, the former Canadian ambassador to the UN admitted that it has been 'emotionally difficult' to encounter the 'specter of death that haunts the African continent.'

'There are no words to convey the human devastation on the continent,' he told the bishops, who explored the theme of reconciliation at their interim meeting September 26-October 1. Lewis described a recent visit to Namibia where one of the growth industries is making small coffins for the many children who are dying. 'One of the chief weekend activities is going to funerals,' he said, 'but now they are also happening during the week.'

Initial estimates on the extent of the pandemic were not adequate, even in countries where the infection rate has already reached 30 or 35 percent of the population, he reported. 'And now India, China and parts of central Asia face a similar future,' he said. 'It is also clear that this pandemic increasingly has a woman's face,' he added, offering a numbing set of statistics to indicate the extent of the destruction of the future among younger and younger women.

A fight for survival

'Gender inequality is lethal, a death sentence, when you are dealing with AIDS in Africa,' Lewis said. 'African leaders are now openly talking about a fight for survival.' He also warned that by 2010 there will be at least 25 million orphans wandering the landscape, many of them depending on grandmothers to keep them alive.

Food is a huge problem with no one to plant and tend crops. 'We are moving from catastrophe to cataclysm because there is no one left to grow food. We are losing the agricultural workforce,' Lewis said. The educational system is being devastated as children and teachers disappear, he noted.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has proposed a global fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and 'the church has a significant role to play,' Lewis argued. 'In Africa the church is the only institution that reaches everyone on the continent--every single week.'

Yet the response of the international community has been slow and insufficient, Lewis said. 'We can't seem to generate passion around the AIDS issue. We are moving from inertia to paralysis.'

Racism is a factor

In response to a question, Lewis said that racism is 'a strong and powerful element' in the crisis, 'there's just no other way to explain the response.' He said that he is 'sustained by rage, finding it impossible to understand why we allow millions to die needlessly because we can't find the resources to fight the pandemic.' He added that he is 'bewildered and completely baffled' by the failure of the women's movement and human rights movement around the world to respond.

'Yet I'm not without hope,' he added. 'We know how to fight the disease and, despite problems with the infrastructure, we have been able to provide health care in many areas.' He pointed to the recent success in alleviating the crippling debt carried by most nations in the developing world as a model. When asked whether the divestment campaign in South Africa that was used to fight apartheid might also offer a model, he said, 'Never underestimate the power of the church when it is unleashed.'

The bishops responded by adopting unanimously a Statement of Solidarity with the HIV/AIDS Initiative of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA). 'We renew the encouragement previously expressed by the House and by the General Convention that the parishes, dioceses and church-wide bodies do all in their power to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to offer prayer and the compassionate ministry of Christ to all affected,' the statement said.

The statement also expressed solidarity with CAPA's vision of 'a generation without AIDS' and with its insistence that 'debt cancellation in Africa is essential to addressing the pandemic on that continent.'

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