The True Tragedy of AIDS


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The True Tragedy of AIDS

 
When I was in South Africa, I spent some time in a township called Crossroads, which essentially began as a squatter camp for immigrants looking for work near Cape Town. In the late 80s and early 90s, to make room for an alleged development project, the apartheid government tried to relocate the settlers. Whatever the reasons, entire sections of the settlement were razed. Many people did not want to move and, consequently, their resistance was met with arson and both random and targeted violence; many of the victims were women and young children. The settlers' sense of security, albeit loosely bound with wood and corrugated iron, was destroyed. In 1994, as democracy came to South Africa, the settlers who remained began to rebuild their community out of the wreckage of apartheid, only to be confronted by a powerful new enemy: AIDS.

 

For me, Crossroads became an example of the conflicting reality in South Africa today - destruction and resilience, hope and continual struggle.

 

Crossroads is now home to Beautiful Gate, a home for dozens of children living with HIV/AIDS whose parents are either unable to take care of them or have already died. Converted from what was once a place for troubled youth, Beautiful Gate is surrounded by an imposing fence; I thought this was unusual to have around a place for sick children. On the windows are metal bars, which I originally thought were there to protect the children from violence caused by the stigma surrounding AIDS. I was wrong. In fact, the bars are there because people had tried to steal food...because in Crossroads only half of the people can find work and they are desperate to support themselves.

Some of us were able to visit Beautiful Gate a couple times, and I remember talking to Francis Herbert, the social worker there. I asked her why she continued to work there. How could she continue to work when essentially no one was listening, when the government was faced with so many problems it couldn't pay attention, when she knew that for every child that stays at Beautiful Gate, dozens, actually thousands, more have no place to go. Why? Francis looked at me with a puzzled face. She does what she does because it has to be done. I see now how obvious that answer was. And I realize now that Francis and others working in similar conditions will keep hitting a brick wall unless people like myself use our knowledge of the severity of AIDS to mobilize international support.

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There is a responsibility that goes along with the experiences we've had. We don't have the excuse of not knowing; we cannot with good conscience shy away from our opportunities for leadership. What I want to get across is that our experiences in South Africa had an enormous impact on us, transformed us, and inspired a myriad of positive activities once we returned. I'll mention some of what I've done since that's the easiest.

 

Since I've come home from South Africa, I have lobbied in Congress, attended a Special Session at the UN, and spoken at conferences and public forums. I have helped develop a national grassroots network of students, the Student Global AIDS Campaign, and have worked on campus with my friends Sejal and Sujit to build a solid legion of student activists at the University of Maryland.

 

We actually got about an hour of sleep each night for the past two weeks organizing for a massive rally and lobby day at the Capitol building this morning.

 

But I really have not done all that much. One of the first things I learned in South Africa and through my involvement in global AIDS advocacy is humility about my role in the greater movement. What I've learned about youth empowerment is that it's not about standing out or receiving accolades for the work you do; it is about accepting the responsibilities of your generation and heeding the call to action. That is a lesson of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in which many young people took part in and led, as well as the global AIDS movement today in which my peers around are in the most literal sense the front lines.

 

I heard President Bush speaking on Labor Day last year about how Washington has enough money; legislators just need to prioritize. But I have my eyes open. I know that AIDS will cause more deaths that all wars combined during the 20th century. I know that the destruction of AIDS is only inevitable through my own complicity...that not to act amounts to consciously allowing the deaths of million of people. I know that there is a global apartheid implicit in not taking action, because it admits that we feel there is something different in the humanity between us and other people in poorer parts of the world. I know we don't believe that. I know -- we know -- what needs to be done and how to do it.

 

We have the tools, but we need the money and support. In fact, the largest impediment to stopping the global AIDS pandemic is inadequate financial resources. Not that enough money doesn't exist, it just hasn't been allocated. This is the substantive portion of my speech - I urge the policymakers here today to vote for an amendment to the emergency supplemental that will provide $750 million dollars for the Global AIDS Fund.

 

Many people often refer to the AIDS crisis as a tragedy. I don't like that characterization. I had a professor once describe tragedy as the gap between what humans can imagine and what we can achieve. AIDS is not a tragedy because the end of it is not something we can merely imagine, it is only a tragedy in the sense that we continue to be paralyzed by our own inaction.


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