Keynote lecture by Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa

11th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections 8 February 2004, San Francisco, United States

As I conclude these remarks, I beg you to enter the fray. Admittedly, it’s not in your collective terms of reference to mount the barricades. You’re trained as scientists or professionals of other exotic disciplines; no one suggested a quotient of advocacy added to everything else you do. But this is a powerful constituency. You’re knowledgeable; people listen. Somewhere in the lives you lead, there has to be time carved out to shout from the rooftops, and if my kind of stormy invective is unwholesome, then shout in the muted tones of professional eloquence … but tell the world and its governments, especially the governments of the west, that an apocalypse has unfolded, and it has to be stopped in its tracks before it engulfs us all. If morality is found wanting in the actions of governments, let it be rediscovered in the advocacy of individuals.

There’s a true and acrid irony in all of this. We forever call for behaviour change in Africa and so much of the rest of the developing world. It’s a valid call, no question. And because nothing is more difficult to change than sexual behaviour, it comes in painfully slow increments. But what about our change in behaviour? It isn’t sexual; it’s financial, economic, technical, psycho-social. And it progresses in increments even more infinitesimal. How do we get away with it? What is it doing to our collective humanity to deny life to millions?. With the money and the will, we can bring the scourge of HIV/AIDS to an end, and everyone here, in the depths of his or her soul, knows it.

I’m really not a Jeremiah. And I don’t take Africa off the hook. The silence, denial and palpable immobility of some African leaders over the years, as the pandemic exploded, was entirely unforgiveable. Would that they had mirrored the stirring public voice of President Museveni. Some leaders may still be locked in a nexus of unreality; it’s hard to say. Most are now vocal, brutally forthright about matters sexual and fully engaged. But even if all of the leaders of Africa, were to move determinedly against the virus, they just don’t have the resources, the capacity or the infrastructure. That’s where we come in.

What in Heaven’s name are we waiting for? - END -