A Country is Dying

By Will Baker

The recent turning of the page from the twentieth to the twenty-first century was marked, not by negative effects of the so-called Y2K computer bug, or much feared terrorist attacks, but rather by a world-wide sense of unity. This grand moment was brought about as a result of a celebratory event that we were all able to share in as global citizens, in much the same way that the world was briefly united when Neil Armstrong took his first steps upon the moon. Yes, this past New Year’s Eve was a great time to be a citizen of this space ship earth, when each and every capital around the globe celebrated a singular event.

However, this warm feeling of unity evaporated quickly when I read a piece by George Will published recently in Newsweek concerning the challenges being faced by the folks that live in South Africa. It seems that, although in this country it appears that we have made great strides in mitigating the HIV/Aids epidemic, the African Continent, and the country of South Africa in particular, is experiencing what amounts to a meltdown of their society and culture. Some facts from Mr. Will’s essay:

"More than 12 million sub-Saharan Africans have died of Aids. Last year, 2 million died, more than five times the number of Aids-related deaths in America in the nearly two decades since the disease arrived here. Annually, the world’s wars kill only one tenth as many people as Aids kills in Africa. Almost 23 million sub-Saharan people carry HIV. Every minute 11 people worldwide are infected with HIV, 10 of them in sub-Saharan Africa."

Mr. Will also indicates that, with 1,600 new infections per day, South Africa has the highest HIV infection rate in the world. And The World Health Organization estimates that within five years, more than fifteen percent of that county’s population will be infected, and 3.5 million South Africans will die of the disease. With a population of 40 million, that means that almost nine percent of that country’s population is expected to die.

I indicated above that we in the U.S. have made great strides with respect to controlling this epidemic. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that, as a result of intensive antiretroviral therapies, Aids mortality in this country has declined from 29.4 per 100 persons in 1993, to 8.8 per 100 persons in 1998. 31,130 U.S. citizens died of Aids in 1996 compared to 16,865 in 1997. And this trend has continued. The number of HIV infected individuals in this country is estimated to be between 650,000 to 900,000, or roughly .3 % of our 274,000,000 population.

But can you imagine what it would be like if, within five years nine percent of our population perished from Aids? Nine percent of the U.S. population is approximately 14 million people. It seems to me that, were this to occur, no family in this country would be untouched. The impacts on society, culture, commerce and the economy would be devastating. Imagine millions of Aids orphans. Imagine the lost productivity and shattered dreams of the dying and the caregivers. How would the health care delivery system cope with this staggering situation? What would the impacts be on our ability to educate our young? What would the familial consequences be? Would the situation change the very way that we view ourselves as a nation, and what would our country’s future prospects be?

And who are these people dying of Aids in South Africa anyway? Lest you assume that they are all drug addicts or homosexuals, I should clarify this. It is my understanding that the African Aids meltdown is being fueled primarily by the infection of heterosexual people by heterosexual people engaging in heterosexual acts. As a result, by next year there will be 13 million Africans orphaned due to Aids. And what are the impacts of this situation on the fabric of South African society, its institutions and culture? To state the thing simply, the country is devolving.

Given the proclivity of the West, and our country in particular, to intervene in matters beyond our borders, I have a hard time understanding why we have not become more involved in addressing the African Aids epidemic. For instance, there is no doubt in my mind that, if years ago, an amount of resources, say, equivalent to that which was expended during the 1991 Gulf War, had been allocated towards the mitigation of the African Aids epidemic, the situation in South Africa would be much different than it is today. But it didn’t happen. Evidently it isn’t our problem. But as citizens of the world, shouldn’t it be?

It seems to me that the Aids epidemic is very different than other maladies that have appeared on the world’s stage. While measles, small pox and the Black Death have killed millions they are not sexually transmitted diseases. I believe that in the West, Aids has become inexorably linked with homosexuality, drug addiction and sexual promiscuity. So in a way it is probably to our credit that we were able to overcome our biases and beat back the Aids epidemic in this country. Therefore it would appear that these same biases should not prevent us from becoming involved with addressing the African Aids epidemic. So why aren’t we?

When a country allocates significant resources outside of its borders, the reason cited is invariably one of a "compelling national interest." Therefore, shall we assume that attempting to relieve suffering on a huge scale is not as important to us as a nation, as say, protecting our oil supply? At one time the West had no compunction with totally exploiting the African continent, plundering it of its human and natural resources. It seems to me that, in order to accomplish this incredible act of barbarity we must have distanced ourselves from the empathy we should have felt for the folks that we were exploiting. And how did we accomplish that feat? By convincing ourselves that the Africans were not like us, perhaps not even of the same species.

But that was a long time ago you say. And since then we have made great strides with respect to addressing the bigotry and racism induced by the ignorance of our forefathers. Maybe so, yet I wonder whether the current situation in South Africa would be tolerated in a country with a population that more closely mirrors our own.

As wonderful as that worldwide moment of unity was last New Year’s Eve, think of the global spirit of good will that could flow from a concerted effort to assist the Africans in their plight. The pragmatist in me understands that we simply can not cure all of the world’s ills. However we can carefully choose our battles. Yes, Humankind has made great strides since the colonial exploitation of the African continent. And it seems to me that assisting our sisters and brothers in Africa would be a worthy and noble battle. I believe that this current moment is an opportunity to demonstrate just how enlightened we have become.

 (Essay Collection)