George Bush surprised a lot of people in his 2003 State of the Union message when he called for congress to commit $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa. This actually represents $10 billion over what was already pledged. The president has not been known as a strong advocate for fighting AIDS, but the sheer magnitude of the problem is overwhelming and perhaps can no longer be ignored by anyone. According to a White House fact sheet this money will fund antiviral drugs for 2 million people and prevent 7 million new infections over the next five years in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.
These funds will not be available for some time since this increase pertains to the 2004 budget. It seems unfortunate that mobilization for this desperately needed humanitarian relief can not happen as quickly as war preparations. For comparison, spending earmarked for defense in the 2004 budget, according to the Washington Post, rose 4% from the previous 2003 budget to a grand total of $390 billion! This is a defense budget $84 billion higher than the one inherited from the previous administration.
The statistics on the problem of African AIDS are so endless and overwhelming that people tend to tune out when hearing them. Here, though, are just a few from web site, allAfrica.com, sponsored by the Constituency for Africa out of Washington, D.C.:
- There are nearly 30 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS.
- There will be more than 3 million new African infections this year, compared for example with the 40,000 new HIV infections expected in the United States during the same period.
- More than 2 million Africans will die of AIDS in 2003.
These new funds proposed by Bush are a start but as the statistics show only a modest beginning and certainly not a reason to put the issue out of our heads as a disaster that has been adequately addressed.
The destabilization of an entire continent brought about by this deadly infectious disease could be the spark for a massive geopolitical catastrophe. There has certainly already been significant al-Qaida terrorist activity on the continent; perhaps the $15 billion is just another front on the war against terrorism. One can hope that George Bush was primarily motivated by compassion and not fears of the relatively stable Muslim North African nations taking future advantage of the AIDS-weakened and destitute countries south of the Sahara.
On 1/29/03 the Washington Post credited a coalition of Christian evangelicals and liberal activists for this amazing Bush turnaround. These evangelicals are a very strong part of his political base and they have many missions in Africa. This Washington Post piece went on to speculate that many conservative politicians have become increasingly concerned about the immense humanitarian disaster in Africa especially since most cases have nothing to do with “the morality” of those infected. (The implication here being I suppose, if you are a gay man with HIV as a result of taking it up the butt “may you die an ugly death and then burn in hell for eternity”.)
A much more cynical take on George Bush’s recent sensitivity to the AIDS crisis comes from something I recently read on Salon.com from February 4, 2003. In this piece Michelle Goldberg was reporting on the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. This right wing confab was held in early February outside of Washington, D.C. and the opening address was delivered by Vice President Dick Cheney. Goldberg’s posting was quite the scary report, unless of course you are far right wing and then it was very reinforcing of your world view! A fellow named Tim Weigal was manning the Free Republic booth and his take on such compassionate conservative actions by Bush was that they are “throwaways, put out there to keep the left quiet while he takes care of Iraq.” Even I am willing to give George Bush a little more credit than that and besides my Buddhist teachers continually remind me that we are here on earth to save all sentient beings. George and all other misguided right wingers are sentient beings, whether I find that to be disconcerting or not.
A very thoughtful and radical( to the root) analysis of AIDS and tuberculosis in poor countries is laid out in the award winning book titled Infections and Inequalities written in 1999 by Paul Farmer, who directs the Program in Infectious Disease and Social Change at Harvard University. If George Bush is serious about trying to tackle the huge AIDS problem in Africa and the Caribbean it will take a lot more than $15 billion. As eloquently laid out in Farmer’s book the huge issues of poverty, powerlessness and hopelessness, all playing out in a context of gender inequality, must be addressed as the root causes they are for the gross, disproportionate amount of AIDS in poor countries of the world. The issue of AIDS in the homosexual cultures of the United States and Western Europe deserves a different analysis, although issues of power and social position still come in to play somewhat in queer AIDS.
I am reminded of the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” We are certainly living in an interesting time, a defense budget of $390 billion for one year and $5 billion for the same year to fight perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time. Even though it is an old bromide from the 60s it still seems quite applicable to today’s desperate world situation and that is, “if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem”.