Stephen Lewis at the opening of City of Joy at Panzi Hospital, DRC (Photo by Paula Allen/V-Day)

We Can and Will Win This Fight

Click here to download the full four-page Globe and Mail supplement about the Stephen Lewis Foundation

By Stephen Lewis

It’s crunch time for the AIDS pandemic. Despite all the scientific hoopla about the numbers of people in treatment who are thereby staying alive -- six million at latest count -- there are ten million who require treatment now but aren’t getting it, and for every person we put into treatment, there are two new infections.

The virus continues to outstrip our capacity to respond, and the carnage is most deeply felt in Africa. What is most galling about this state of affairs is the recognition that we’re actually on the verge of a breakthrough against the pandemic.

We have the capacity to roll out treatment as health systems improve and health professionals grow in number; antiretroviral drugs are increasingly available at low cost (and in the new parliament there is a real possibility that the Canadian generic drug legislation will actually pass both House of Commons and Senate); we appear to have discovered a microbicide that will protect women from infection and give them sexual autonomy; male circumcision, providing a large measure of protection for men is everywhere being surgically implemented in safe settings; suddenly a vaccine does not seem out of reach and everywhere, governments and activists alike are pounding home the message of prevention.

Yet right at this electric time, when the stars are aligning rather than colliding, we’re running out of money. The ostensible international financial crisis (I say ‘ostensible’ because I note that it doesn’t apply to banks or to corporate bonuses or to wars) is playing havoc with resources for global public health. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is in deep trouble; the Presidential Initiative in the United States (known as PEPFAR) is flat-lining its budget; the UN is far more rhetorical than substantial, and as a collective result, on the ground where people live and die, panic is beginning to set in as drug stockouts proliferate and people who need treatment are turned away.

But in the midst of the malaise and the desperation -- or perhaps because of it -- something extraordinary is happening. At the grass- roots, people are coming together to bond, defiantly, in the struggle against the pandemic. It’s astonishing to witness. At community level, hope abounds because every-one is engaged and generous and compassionate. When you get past the international delinquency, when you get past governmental inertia, individual communities prove that the virus can be contained.

It’s worth recalling that when the Stephen Lewis Foundation started out, our cut-line was “Easing the pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa”. And then, recently it changed to “Turning the Tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa”.

That was no exercise in hyperbole or self-delusion. If the tide is to be turned, it will be turned on the ground, community by community coming together with infinite resolve.

We actually see it happening. Orphan children who were desolate five years ago are today in school and thriving. Grandmothers who were starving and impoverished are today nurturing community gardens and have enough income to attend the local health clinic.

Even more, these same grandmothers who five years ago lived in a dilapidated, crumbling, rain-soaked shack now have solid homes of brick with sturdy, impenetrable roofing. Women who are living with AIDS as a result of sexual violence have access to counselling and home- based care. The home-based care workers, who were always categorized as “volunteers”, in a life of what was really indentured labour, now receive a daily transportation stipend and a regular income for their magnificent contribution to human wellbeing.

These are not random acts of kindness. These are interventions which, when taken together, give whole communities a sense of resilience, strength and courage. The reason the grandmothers of Canada are so successful in their support of the grandmothers of Africa lies not only in solidarity, but in vibrant, tangible progress.

People live longer. Children survive. Societies rekindle.

I’ve always been self-conscious about seeking financial support for the Foundation. But in the instance of this short message, I’m abandoning that neurosis.

If the money won’t come, top down, from the international financial agencies, then at least let it flow, bottom up, from the Foundation. We may not be able to provide drugs for millions, but we can provide hope for hundreds upon hundreds of thousands.

That seems to me to more than justify the Foundation’s existence. By the end of 2011, in the seven-and-a-half years of life of the Foundation, we will have distributed more than $50-million.

It is to gasp. It is also to cherish. This cornucopia of generosity is what turns the tide.

Stephen Lewis's article appeared in a special supplement of the Globe and Mail on Friday, May 13, 2011. The four-page supplement was entirely sponsored and produced at no cost to the Foundation.

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