AIDS & Genocide

(July 30, 2002)


For some six months in 1994, approximately 800,000 Africans of Tutsi origin were slaughtered by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda and Barundi while the rest of the world looked the other way.  Having lost 18 US Army Rangers in an ill-advised and risky attempt to capture a "War Lord" in what was otherwise a popular famine-defeating humanitarian operation Somalia, the US president and State Department refused to get involved any place in Africa, in fact, even refused to admit that anything like "genocide" was taking place. 

       Today an even bigger genocide is taking place in Africa, this one not by means of guns and machetes, but as a result of AIDS.  According to statistics gathered by the World Health Organization, of the 34.3 million people in the world who have come down with HIV/AIDS, nearly two-thirds (24.5 million) live in Africa.  Of the some 19 million who have died from this dread disease so far (85% of them Africans), over 2 million Africans died of it in 1999 alone. Another 4 million Africans came down with the disease in that same year. Already there are over 12 million AIDS orphans in Africa today and by the end of this decade, there will probably be about 40 million parentless children on that continent while nearly 4 million African children under age fifteen will have themselves died of this disease. 

       So again, the question needs to be raised: what does the rest of the world intend to do?  Or will it simply look the other way? So far, the response has been meager.  About $165 million is being spent on HIV prevention and AIDS patient care in Africa per year while about 2.3 billion dollars per year is needed instead. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has repeatedly asked the richer developed nations to pledge 7 to 10 billion over the next five years.

       The US response, the world's richest nation, even before the current economic downturn, was a pitiful pledge of 200 million.  Later on, under pressure from much less self-absorbed nations, we upped our pledge to 500 million, and lately, our leaders are crowing about the US plans to give $1.1 billion dollars. But even that will be spread out over the next several years and will represent the US commitment to the total Global Health Fund (not just for Africa) and will be directed partly to eradicating malaria and TB, not just HIV/AIDS.

       Americans rightly pride themselves on being a "religious" people. Average church attendance in the USA probably outstrips any other nation or continent in the world -- except perhaps Africa itself where Christianity (and Islam) has been growing by leaps and bounds.  Yet one can only question what kind of Christianity or level of religious understanding this is that consigns the human population of a whole continent to disease and starvation while it pampers its own household pets. (In 2000, US citizens spent 27 billion dollars on their cats, dogs, and other pets, nearly half of that, according to industry-supplied figures, on pet food alone!) Yet did not Jesus himself have something to say about the injustice of throwing away what is intended for God's children as "food for the dogs"?  Surely this is the kind of sin that in the words of Scripture "cries to heaven for vengeance".  So what can we do?

       True, there is no cure for AIDS. Even at the cut rate prices that some of the pharmaceutical companies have reluctantly agreed to, only some 36,000 African AIDS victims (out of 24.5 milllion) are being given life-prolonging drugs. But at least we, the richest people in the world, could give more than just a few crumbs of compassion by sending pain relieving medicines and helping doctors and nurses in Africa (most of whom earn less than $100 a month for their efforts) stay on the job.  In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus warns us that we will be judged by God on the basis of what we did for the "least of his brothers".  Whatever else we think of Africa and the sorry state of its population, we need not be guilty of this new "genocide" by our indifference or neglect.