Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

AIDS: Something must be done now


Stephen Lewis has to be one of Canada's great modern orators. Words tumble out of the former leader of Ontario's NDP party in torrents -- fancy words, simple words, seemingly endless words. But when I interviewed him a month ago for a television program, there was just one word on his mind: death.

Lewis is working for the General Secretary of the United Nations right now. He's the UN Special Envoy on HIV-AIDS to Africa. He can tell stories about the AIDS pandemic and recount numbers for hours on end.

Twenty-million are already dead from the disease worldwide; 40 million are infected; HIV infection rates have hit 35-38 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and are climbing; China, India, and Russia are about to explode with infections -- men, women, and children.

His frustration and outrage at Western governments for not stepping forward with money to halt the pandemic are being replaced by an almost inarticulate disbelief. He says he simply cannot explain why our leaders are looking the other way.

He looked tired and depressed.

I asked him if he intended to keep doing this job.

"No," he said. "I'm 65 now. I think I should retire. I have seen too much death."

He talked of traveling to a small African village where he saw people in the final stages of AIDS-related illnesses lying on stained and dirty sheets. When he asked a woman why they didn't at least clean the bedding of the dying, she replied, "But sir, we have no soap."

He visited another clinic doing good work in spite of the lack of resources. Lewis asked the director how the clinic kept going. The director led him to the back yard to view their fundraising activity. There they make and sell papier-maché coffins for children dying from HIV-AIDS.

"At that moment," recalled Lewis, "I knew I could not do this job much longer."

Lewis praised churches and other non-governmental organizations for their efforts to fight the disease.

"I spend much more time with church leaders than I ever expected to," he joked. And there is something almost biblical and prophetic in his rage at Western inaction.

Last Sunday, December 1, was International HIV-AIDS Day. In the year 2002, no one can deny that this disease has become as destructive and as destabilizing as any other force in the world, and that includes terrorism, rogue nuclear states, and climate change.

And even if we don't know how to cure it yet, we do know how to virtually halt its spread.

All it takes is the will and the resources to do it.

Speak out about HIV-AIDS. Call your MP and demand more action from Canada internationally. Give to a charity of your choice that will support the battle against the disease and the people living with the effects of AIDS. Learn more about the pandemic and talk to people around you. Use whatever influence you have to make something happen.

Each one of us can make a difference.

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