‘An indescribable human holocaust ...’

Stephen Lewis speaks about the horrors of the AIDS pandemic

Stephen Lewis, outgoing UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS, spoke about the AIDS crisis at St. George’s Cathedral Sunday.
Stephen Lewis, outgoing UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS, spoke about the AIDS crisis at St. George’s Cathedral Sunday.

During his time as UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis visited a school in Zimbabwe and heard children talk about their fear of death and their belief in the power of prayer.

“I said to their teacher I didn’t understand their references to prayer and God. And their teacher said to me, ‘Well you see, Mr. Lewis, if you had to attend funerals every day after school and if you spent your entire weekend going to funerals, you would understand the only solace that these kids have in their life is prayer,’” Lewis recalled Sunday during a talk in front of a large crowd in St. George’s Cathedral. He spoke a second time that evening in McArthur Hall Auditorium.

Lewis told more than 600 Queen’s and Kingston community members there are 40 million people living with HIV in the world, 30 million of whom are in Africa. He said that three million people die every year as a result of AIDS.

“I never believed, when I told the [UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan] that I would love the privilege of taking on this position, that I would encounter the depth of human carnage that I have seen,” he said. “What we have here is an indescribable human holocaust and 25 million lives have already been lost.”

Beth Lorimer, ArtSci ’07, said Stephen Lewis has inspired her.

“He’s a Canadian,” she said. “But also, he’s gone through it all. Just the fact that he’s been on the ground [in Africa]. Yes, he’s a diplomat and an ambassador, but also he’s gone right down to the grassroots and seen it all for himself.”

Lewis has been the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa since 2001. He is also a member of the board of directors of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and the author of Race Against Time, a book based on his 2005 Massey lecture series.

It was not until 2004 that people in Africa were introduced to treatment for AIDS, Lewis said.

“Drugs were costing ten to twelve thousand dollars per person per year, and gradually those prices came down in the faces of the pharmaceutical companies who were inexplicably holding to their balance sheets rather than the preservation of life,” he said to resounding applause from the audience.

Lewis talked about doctors developing treatments that protect African women from being infected through rape and pressured sexual activity.

“The virus is driven by predatory male sexual behaviour,” he said. “Gender inequality is doing terrible things to the planet. In the face of the virus, it is fatal.”

It’s vital that doctors develop protection methods that can be entirely in the hands of women, Lewis said.

“[The AIDS Conference] in Toronto had a dimension of science as well as advocacy,” he said. “There is now a focus on a vaginal cream, or gel, or foam to prevent transmission that will be undetectable to the partner.”

Lewis spoke passionately about the importance of creating an agency for women, similar to an agency like UNICEF for children.

“We do not have a significant agency to represent what is 50 per cent of our population,” he said, adding that the UN is putting $200 million towards an agency for women.

“This amount of funding is not sufficient … but it is a very significant start.” Although the International AIDS Conference held in Toronto this past August had many celebrities and philanthropists in attendance, Lewis said, it was lacking political support.

“The world is developing a focus on celebrity leadership. Why? Because there is no political leadership,” he said. “Celebrities will never be able to fill the gap left by the lack of government representation.”

Lewis spoke with high regard for non-governmental organizations, but said organizations like these should not be a substitute for government intervention.

“Have we reached the point where we are allowing individual philanthropists to make up for a lack of a serious government response?” he asked.

Lewis also described his experience visiting orphanages in Africa.

“[The children] don’t want to let you go,” he said. “They hold on to your legs, your clothes. They want some sort of tactile response from an adult.”

Lewis said that despite the efforts of non-governmental organizations, only five per cent of children with HIV are being treated.

“We’re losing children in unbearable numbers,” he said. “We don’t even have treatment for children yet.”

Lewis concluded his talk by praising Canadians for their generosity.

“[Canada] is a great country with a remarkable international reputation,” he said. “I was stunned at the generosity and the response of the Canadian people. We’ve raised over $14 million in three years.”

Lewis closed his lecture to loud applause and a standing ovation, with a message that stressed the seriousness of the crisis in Africa and encouraged the audience to be involved in the fight against the AIDS pandemic.

“These people are fighting a battle. There is no historical equivalent to what’s happening. Not even the Black Death in the 14th century comes close to what is happening now,” he said. “It’s a matter of raising awareness, raising consciousness, putting pressure on members of Parliament and on minority governments ... maybe even picking up and going off to Africa.”

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