The Common Good

America is a Great Idea

I stood in a small room in the U.S. Capitol. Wine, fruit and cheese lined the walls. About 40 people focused on the man in the cool shades behind a humble wooden podium.

Bono speaks on Capitol Hill at a World AIDS Day event, 12/1/2011. Photo by Lisa
Bono speaks on Capitol Hill at a World AIDS Day event, 12/1/2011. Photo by Lisa Sharon Harper for Sojourners.

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Bono spoke: “You Americans are too hard on yourselves… You don’t know what you’ve got.”

 “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” he continued, “Ireland is a great nation. America is a great idea. And that is the power of your country.”

Everyone at the One Campaign’s World AIDS Day reception last week, hosted by the organization Bono co-founded, the ONE Campaign, knew the Irish rocker was talking about. Thirty years ago none of us could have imagined we would (or even could) imagine this day.

On World AIDS Day 2011, UNAIDS released a report declaring it is possible that by the year 2015 the world could see its first AIDS -free generation. The world’s new hope comes in large part from the U.S. PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and technological advances made-in-America during the past three decades.

In 1981 I was in junior high school. That year 52 American hostages were released from 444 days of captivity in Iran; President Ronald Reagan was shot, but ultimately dodged the assassination attempt by John Hinkley; MTV premiered on cable television; and the first cases of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) were reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Five years later, the phone rang in my dorm room at Rutgers University. Mom called to break the news: Our family’s beloved hairdresser, Jimmy Rodriguez — a man full of life, laughter, and love — was dead. He had AIDS.

In 1987 I walked through the Names Project AIDS Quilt looking for Jimmy’s tribute and never found it. What I did see was nearly 2,000 other memorials stitched together to celebrate sacred lives snatched — 2,000 wicks snuffed out in their prime. I walked the quilt and wept.

By now, most of us know someone affected personally by HIV/AIDS. According to the latest statistics available, as of 2009, 1.5 million people had died of AIDS-related causes in North America. Worldwide nearly 30 million people had died from AIDS-related causes, 22.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Thanks to herculean advances in treatment, more people are living with HIV than ever before — 34 million survivors in 2010.

At the World AIDS Day gathering, I spoke with Bernhard Schwartlander, director of UNAIDS and author of the day’s celebrated UNAIDS Report, How to Get to Zero: Faster, Smarter, Better. Schwartlander confirmed that the effect of America’s PEPFAR initiative was nothing less than a game changer.

Only 100,000 infected people were receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment in 2003. By the end of 2010 more than 6.6 million people were receiving the life-saving treatments whose efficacy is so astounding it's called "the Lazarus effect."

According to a White House report, in FY 2011 alone PEPFAR, which was launched by President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Barack Obama, reached 3.9 million people with treatment.

Schwartlander continued to deliver great news: Increased access to antiretroviral therapy has averted the deaths of 2.5 million people in low- and middle-income countries. Additionally, new technologies have made it possible to prevent the passage of AIDS from mothers to their babies, both in utero and through breast milk. As a result, the rate of new HIV cases can be reduced even more dramatically in the coming years.

But, there are still nearly 9 million HIV-positive people in need of antiretroviral treatment. Schwartlander’s UNAIDS report makes two key recommendations:

  1. Virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission (MTCT).
  2. Accelerate access to treatment: 15 million people on antiretroviral treatments by 2015.

What’s needed to reach these goals?

  1. Political will
  2. Increased funding from donors, governments, and the private sector.

Here’s the catch: Our own government is in the midst of an election-year budget battle during. Our rhetoric has become toxic and our politics even worse. Presidential candidates and congressional legislators alike are pressing for cuts to foreign aid in order to balance the budget. PEPFAR is foreign aid.

Cuts to PEPFAR would compromise America’s leadership in the charge toward an AIDS-free generation. Likewise, presidential hopefuls have made recent vows to eliminate the Affordable Care Act by executive order should they win the presidency.

First, the claim that congressional legislation can be overturned by executive order is false. But the greater harm here is the vilification of a domestic program that needs to be strengthened, not eliminated.

HIV/AIDS is a justice issue. The most vulnerable and poorest people still don’t have access to the treatments that save lives. Jesus’ concern for the lives of the sick in Matthew 25 calls Christ-followers to do everything in our power to make these life-saving treatments available to every person in need.

“America is a great idea,” Bono said.

Fundamental to that idea is the belief that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with the intrinsic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness each demand the will and resources make an AIDS-free generation a reality by 2015.

meLisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

 

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