A high-powered delegation of scientists, medical researchers, government specialists, politicians and aid workers, led by U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, left Mozambique for South Africa on Tuesday, April 2. On Wednesday, April 3, they flew to Botswana. World Vision United States President Richard Stearns continues to represent international aid agency interests on the tour.
"I am very encouraged by the tone taken by the Secretary for Health, his understanding of the issues, and the competency of the team he has put together for this tour," said Stearns. "The stand taken by him and the U.S. government is one that can rightly inspire Americans to active generosity on behalf of a suffering continent."
On Tuesday, Secretary Thompson's group visited three medical and care facilities in Maputo that are confronting the bitter realities of HIV and AIDS head-on. They also met non-governmental agencies involved in the fight against AIDS, led by Janet Mondlane, the widow of the first president of Mozambique. They also held discussions with key government figures.
In Pretoria, the mission met South African health ministry officials and non-governmental groups, visited a Catholic hospice and children's retreat in Boksburg, and studied the pioneering work being done by the Ford Motor Company with and for its staff - some 20 percent or more of whom are likely to have harbor the virus that leads to AIDS.
The implication of this was clear; AIDS in Africa is already hitting American business, even before factoring in the effect on globalization of the coming collapse of GDP in the developing world. Ford's own reaction to its crisis has been salutary, with a vigorous and costly campaign for the health and well-being of staff; and all justified not as humanitarian action, but simple good business practice.
Secretary Thompson has constantly underlined the importance of this visit, which has been given Presidential Mission status by U.S. President George Bush. He stresses the vital importance America attaches to the fight against the global pandemic that has already killed 20 million, created 12 million orphans, and left 40 million infected with HIV.
Most of the suffering is in Africa, a continent largely oppressed by poverty, with very poor medical infrastructure and few organized social systems to help people cope.
Thompson promised he had come "not to dictate, but to learn and contribute." And contribute he did, finding creative ways to donate to several causes, make agreements with governments, and organize future collaborations that are financial, scientific and medical. Of considerable significance is the recent decision to appoint the first U.S. health attaché to Africa, Dr. Gray Handley, based in Pretoria.
In a speech in Pretoria, Thompson repeated his promise to lead America to do more to fight AIDS as a partner to Africa: "It's going to be extremely difficult, but it's a fight in which we can't afford to turn the other cheek, can't afford to say it doesn't exist. We are going to continue to fight, and I am going to get the necessary resources that we can put in to assist you."
The U.S. government's $500m contribution to Kofi Annan's Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria was a topic that frequently came up during the trip - Thompson is a board member on the fund.
"We will work with Congress to increase this U.S. commitment as the Fund proves successful," Thompson promised in Pretoria, adding a note on the need for good communications by early beneficiaries. "It will be helpful when we put the first money out in April if we have a story to tell about how useful it is when we go back to Congress."
The visit to South Africa came on a day when the health minister was summoned to the constitutional court to defend her government's measured pace in distributing Nevirapine to pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. But the visiting delegation's visit avoided the more obvious controversies, and officials privately talk of subtle positive movement on issues like this.
Meanwhile, the struggle against HIV is being strongly pursued, say the people in the thick of it, "but we are pushing a ball up a very steep hill."
The tone of the tour so far has been a mix of sober reality, resolute hope and appeals for partnership, perhaps best summed up by Janet Mondlane in Mozambique: "We are convinced we can conquer this pandemic, and we live in hope. But in the end it has to be the community that says it is not OK to spread AIDS, it is not OK to infect our young girls. I think we can do that, but if we can't, we are not going to change much. We are working hard, and we do look to the U.S. for help to join us as a partner in this global battle."