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Statement issued by Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane

Posted on: July 17, 2002 1:32 AM
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at Bishopscourt, Cape Town on 17 July 2002

Passing through London I was horrified by newspaper headlines stating that the average life expectancy in Africa will soon be only 26 years. The same UNAIDS report that made such alarming news around the world warns that the AIDS pandemic is yet to peak - we haven't seen the worst of it yet!

For those of us who attended the AIDS 2002 Conference in Barcelona the message was loud and clear - the time for talk and political prevarication is over. The public and private sectors work alone at their peril and collaborative strategies are imperative. The key challenges are to change behavioural patterns and to eradicate the stigma that makes it so difficult for people to seek the help they need.

Above all we dare not lose hope. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralysed by despair and I am greatly concerned by subsequent reports that Barcelona killed that hope. On the contrary, many of us have been re-enthused to work ever harder at facilitating a generation without AIDS and many entrenched negative assumptions were refuted.

Besides encouraging news about developments in vaccines, we had the likes of Harvard economist, Dr Jeffrey Sachs presenting convincing arguments against the constant whine that broad-based treatment is too expensive for most governments. He pointed out that with incentives and an eager public-private partnership, whole communities can be treated and maintain a level of wellness, heretofore unimagined. All we need is the political will and commitment by both the public and private sectors.

There are already reassuring pockets of success. In the global South, Thailand has turned the AIDS tide by aggressive prevention, and access to treatment and dramatic reduction of stigma and discrimination against people living with AIDS.

AIDS is not a shameful word in the households of Uganda. Consequently, people come forward quickly for treatment and support. They have reduced the spread of HIV infection by using condoms and knowing their HIV antibody status.

Similarly, Brazil reports a dramatic drop in the number of AIDS related deaths, and has cut the average cost of treatment per patient by half. This was achieved by the establishment of domestic laboratories, which now produce eight of the 15 antiretrovirals used in that country.

For so long the world has been swayed by arguments regarding the cost of extending treatment beyond those who have privately funded healthcare. Yet Dr Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, argues, also very convincingly, that to not spend precious resources on antiretroviral treatment for the masses will, in the long run, prove a false economy.

Here in South Africa we have pharmaceutical companies that, in the wake of the Treatment Action Campaign's momentous legal victory, are poised to begin making low-cost life saving medications. All they need is a nod from the government. We have Global Funds made available to KwaZulu Natal because, despite dire predictions, the government was prepared to cut red tape.

We also have conclusive proof that it is possible to change behaviour. While AIDS was mistakenly viewed as a gay disease more than a decade ago, we now know that this was a false assumption. Today less than a million of the 22 million people who have died from AIDS were gay. Part of the reason why the numbers dropped so dramatically was because the gay community was quicker than any other to de-stigmatise the disease, speak frankly about sex, and encourage and support the use of condoms.

In short, we are faced with the possible. It is not time to give up, but time for all sectors to rise above their agendas. For the good of those already living with HIV or AIDS and for future generations we need action now.

I do not ask those who are out of sync with the commonly held beliefs regarding HIV and AIDS, to change their opinion. What I do expect is that they accept their responsibilities within the framework of democratic principles i.e. to work within universal norms. We are told that we have one of the best national AIDS strategies in the world. I find huge hope and solace in that. What we need now is speedy implementation and an equally speedy response to the findings of the Constitutional Court regarding Nevirapine and the plan already in place to establish pilot sites to establish the realities of making antiretrovirals available in the public health sector.

I believe our Government has the power, as much for the survival of millions of citizens of this country as for the sake of NEPAD to enthuse and encourage our nation. I know that it has much to draw on from Barcelona.

Even as I call on Government to act I acknowledge that it is unrealistic to ask it to carry the whole load. I offer a committed strategic "Partnership for Life" on behalf of the more than 70 million Anglicans worldwide, who have commissioned me to drive a programme that is working towards a "Generation without AIDS".

We do not have huge amounts of money but we do reach deep into every community. We are often located where there is no Post Office or electricity and we acknowledge our own responsibility in the AIDS arena.

I extend my hand and heart to government in this partnership. The leaders of this nation must collaborate, and speak as one, and together build on the dreams and hopes for our people. We must eliminate the fear fuelled by misinformation and dithering about response and responsibility. We must unite in a stand for hope.

Besides us Anglicans there are others that Government knows it can count on. COSATU, TAC, business and industry, people like Clem Sunter, people living with AIDS, international donors and faith leaders across the nation all stand ready to join this "Partnership for Life".

The time is absolutely ripe for an interdisciplinary approach and the liberation of enslaved minds.