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Commentary: AIDS in Africa is 'genocide by indifference'

8/4/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton (615) 742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.

A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Donald E. Messer is available.

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Donald E. Messer*

As three South African women shared what it was like living in the heart of the HIV/AIDS holocaust, the room shook with the piercing cries of a grieving mother and grandmother next door. Another baby had died from the disease that is overwhelming the continent.

Statisticians say AIDS kills an African baby every 14 seconds and at least 600 people daily in South Africa. For me, experiencing the suffering of but one mother and grandmother put a face on this tragedy beyond tragedy. The sound of sorrow is universal and breaks the heart.

As my wife and I sat in the small, crowded office of the mental health clinic at the hospital, which serves three predominantly black townships in the Johannesburg area, we heard wrenching stories from the psychologist and community caregivers. They told how person after person comes to their clinic in search of help. What began as a trickle has turned into a mighty river. No matter the reason they come - because of rape, domestic violence, depression, etc. - some 80 percent also prove to be HIV-positive.

The clinic has no medicine to offer to sustain life. But people stream in, hoping someone will listen and care for his or her plight. "We are witnesses to a genocide by indifference," reports the psychologist. The government provides almost no help, many churches distance themselves and the people are turning fatalistic.

"HIV/AIDS is the new apartheid of discrimination and stigmatization," said Bishop Ivan M. Abrahams, who leads the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. "Previously, apartheid meant lack of access to opportunities and institutions; now it means lack of access to the life-sustaining anti-retroviral medicines." The appalling discrepancy between the world's rich and poor nations means that only about 30,000 of the nearly 30 million people infected in sub-Saharan Africa are getting treatment.

With one in five adults infected, South Africa is at the epicenter of the global AIDS crisis. Knowing that, however, does not reveal the depth of the crisis.

That becomes clearer only when you learn that:
· People can no longer have traditional funerals. Coffins of wood sometimes must be replaced with cardboard boxes. Bodies often have to be piled one on top of another in a grave. The cemeteries expand and expand.
· Pastors are overwhelmed with funerals. Ten to 20 a week are not unusual. One Methodist pastor conducted 47 funerals over a two-day period.
· Orphans are multiplying. Africa alone has more than 11 million. The psychologist reported that mothers thrust their babies into your hands, saying, "Please take my baby," and then die. Families adopt more and more children, but many kids have no place to go and as a result become street children.
· The trauma of death overwhelms many children. Instead of engaging in play, laughing and smiling, many are emotionally numbed. At a Cape Town orphanage, we saw 40 children, all needing medication. We were especially shocked to see a hospice service within the orphanage to care for the dying children.
· HIV is an equal-opportunity disease. Fifty-eight percent of all people infected in South Africa are women. Most endangered are married women because they are the most vulnerable and lack power over their own sexual lives. Of the 42 million people infected globally, almost half are women, and the numbers are growing.
· Stigma and discrimination add to the suffering. People lose their jobs and have no way to feed their children. Families and friends reject them, and they experience alienation and loneliness.

While we were visiting South Africa, President George W. Bush made a dramatic, quick trip to five African nations. Repeatedly, he assured Africans that Americans are a compassionate people and that "the average citizen cares deeply about the fact that people are dying in record numbers because of HIV/AIDS."

Critics correctly note that Bush's promised $15 billion to battle AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean over the next five years is insufficient to meet the overwhelming global need. Even as Bush spoke in Africa, Congress was cutting the president's request of $3 billion for the first year.

In contrast, the Defense Department acknowledges that the cost of sustaining the occupation of Iraq is about $1 billion a week - and others say it is closer to $3 billion. Meanwhile, the $10 billion United Nations Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria languishes for lack of money.

On the issue of global AIDS, however, President Bush is far ahead of most Americans in terms of compassion and action. To date, United Methodist churches and leaders have invested only an infinitesimal amount of their energy and financial resources to combat the worst health problem facing humanity in 700 years.

At least three annual conferences - the Dakotas, Kansas West and Rocky Mountain - have petitioned the 2004 General Conference to establish an apportioned Global AIDS Fund. But "business as usual" may prevail, as various agencies and programs scramble for limited funds to sustain existing efforts. New voices and leadership will be required if United Methodism is to respond significantly to this global emergency.

When the three African women were asked how they escaped "burnout" and maintained hope, one commented: "We meet Christ where the suffering is the greatest." United Methodists likewise can "meet Christ" once we decide to make global AIDS a high priority in our mission and ministry.

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*Messer is the Henry White Warren Professor of Practical Theology and director of the Center for Global Parish Ministry at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is also president emeritus of Iliff. He can be reached at

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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