Stephen Lewis — Forcing the world to care about Africa’s AIDS Pandemic

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Billy Talent: Canadian
“Red Flag”; ‘Billy Talent 2′ (2006)


Stephen Lewis woke a lot of people up, but people don’t like to wake up. We like to be asleep for as long as we can and we will actively resist any alarm, going so far as to beat the alarm into little pieces even when we know that listening to it will save our lives.

Stephen was that alarm clock and he got beaten up by governments around the world for trying to wake us up to the African AIDS epidemic. But Lewis fought back, hard. For five years. Not too long ago the United Nations had no concrete policy to fight AIDS. Now it does. So do a lot of other Non-Government Organizations. So do a lot of the worlds governments. In between then and now was Stephen Lewis.

In 2005 Time Magazine named Stephen one of the “100 Most Influential People In The World” in the same category as The Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela for his work as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. As Special Envoy from 2001 until last year, it was his job to be the person who screamed in your ear to wake the fuck up and recognize the desperate situation in Africa, to recognize the HIV/AIDS crisis and to convince leaders and the public that they had/continue to have a responsibility to respond.

Pretty much every AIDS initiative dealing with AIDS in Africa today came from his work. But because he had to scream aboot it so people would understand and listen to him, he also alienated a lot of people. He was constantly telling governments that they weren’t doing enough, but he’d do it in public. While the leader was beside him on the podium. And the government’s would be embarrassed into action. But they’d remember. And Stephen, eventually, stepped on too many toes and the UN shut him down. But the world’s richest countries now contribute billions of dollars that they weren’t before. And the Foundations, like Bill & Melinda Gates, are pushing money into Africa and the African nations themselves have stopped treating the disease like it was mystical and could be treated by witches.

Stephen made AIDS personal for the world by teaching world leaders and the rest of us aboot stories of Africa’s grandmothers, who have taken on the responsibility of caring for their dying children and raising their soon orphaned grandchildren. An estimated 24.5 million adults and children were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2005. During that year, an estimated 2 million people died from AIDS. Africa now has an estimated 13 million AIDS orphans, and in some countries up to 60% are looked after by grandmothers. An entire generation has been scooped out of Africa by AIDS leaving children to care for their brothers and sisters, and elderly grandmothers left to care for handfuls of orphans. Think of the education that’s missing, all of that knowledge not being passed from mother to daughter or father to son. Most of the population in most African countries are dying from AIDS or HIV, and unlike every other disease it is the middle of the population structure that is being killed off. AIDS in Africa is a Generation Killer and will forever alter every African generation to come. Stephen once referred to the worlds response to Africa’s tragedy as “mass murder”.

When Stephen was finally replaced by the United Nations he immediately created “The Stephen Lewis Foundation” so he could make the grandmother’s struggle known to the world and try to bring grandmothers together to fight for the lives of their grandchildren. The Foundation recently held its first international Grandmothers’ Gathering, where one hundred African grandmothers from eleven countries met in Toronto with 200 Canadian grandmothers. The Gathering provided a forum for African grandmothers to set the agenda for support and to establish networks and plan ways of moving forward to help.

The biggest, in my opinion, effect Stephen had during his time with the United Nations was in convincing and educating the African governments themselves into believing that AIDS was real and — more importantly than that — the disease could be, and needed to be, managed.

Stephen is an emotional and effective speaker and one of the most decent people you could ever hope to meet, and he spent the better part of his life fighting, hard, to make the lives of strangers better. If you have a chance to see one of his speeches on YouTube, take it. In fact I’ll leave one here. In the 1960s and 1970s, Stephen Lewis was an elected representative to the Ontario Legislature, and served as leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party. From 1984 through 1988, he was Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations. From 1995 to 1999, Lewis was Deputy Director of UNICEF. Lewis is also the recipient of The Pearson Peace Medal for his outstanding achievements in the field of international service and understanding.

Stephen was born in Ottawa, Ontario on November 11, 1937. He is married to Michele Landsberg, and they have three children.

Now… watch a person of conviction stun the audience at the 2006 AIDS Conference in Toronto:


Stephen Lewis: Canadian
“Keynote Address:” ‘The 16th International Conference On AIDS’
— Toronto, Ontario, Canada: August, 2006


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About Gabriel

I’ve lived in more than fifty places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
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2 Responses to Stephen Lewis — Forcing the world to care about Africa’s AIDS Pandemic

  1. Queen Minx says:

    It’s the vast numbers that throw me into something more than shock … it’s a numbness of disbelief … 13 MILLION AIDS orphans … my head can’t absorb that number … and that’s just the children.
    It’s outrageous that even in the WEST, we still have an incredibly irresponsible attitude towards HIV … myself included to be quite frank … although I have been tested and thankfully I don’t have the virus, but that’s sheer fucking luck more than anything else.
    I watched a TV programme last night … about sex education in Britain and in Holland … ( the different attitudes towards it was startling and not surprising … considering that the UK is supposed to be a world leadership country, we are fucking backwards when it comes to sex education. And that means having a responsible attitude towards ‘kids doing it’ … not pretending they don’t because we are still so fucking repressed, we would rather pretend they didn’t, despite the fact that the UK has one of the, if not the worst number of teenage pregnancies in Europe and considering we are tiny in comparison, that’s a lot of kids having babies.
    STD’s in this country for ages 16-24 are rising and rising and eventually that’s going to mean HIV too … my daughter is 11 … she could be 4-10 years away from having sex … when she does, I want her to have the same sensible attitude to using condoms when having sex as she does when she wears gloves in the winter. But that’s going to be down to me, if left up to the Education Authorities and/or the Government … she could be up the duff or carrying herpes or HIV within a few years, because the idea is, if ‘we’ encourage or teach kids ‘about’ sex (using condoms) ‘we’ are encouraging them to ‘have’ sex – get this: they don’t need encouragement … what they need is a responsible attitude towards it.
    So, in effect, the ‘cost’ of implementing new initiatives towards sex education in both Primary and Secondary Schools, far outways the ‘cost’ of providing financial support for a swathe of teenagers with babies and/or kids with STD’s and/or HIV now and in the future … the ‘cost’ of which is millions possibly billions and counting. What the FUCK??!! It just doesn’t make sense.
    13 Million kids without parents … what the fuck is this world about … kids becoming parents … what the fuck is this world about.
    I am shaking my head, in what … I don’t know.

  2. Gabriel says:

    Hopefully, for your sake, it’s at least ten years before your kid becomes “active”.

    The problem with AIDS is how long it takes to kill. There are a lot of problems, or at least a lot of marketing problems. For the first ten years we were aware of it AIDS was a “Gay” disease. I had a friend in high school, insanely brilliant (he designs robots now). In 1986 he was convinced you got AIDS from having anal sex with monkeys. Don’t forget, also, the estimates in the early days were that there’d be a cure in a year or two years or six months. So it became ingrained in people’s psyche: The disease only threatens a tiny percentage of less than 8% of the population, you can’t catch it if you lay off the monkey fucking, and there’s a cure coming next week. So why pay attention? Why teach our kids anything aboot sex education if the disease we’re warning them aboot is going to be cured next Thursday afternoon?

    The second wave, the one we’re just kind of coming out of, was “it’s an African problem.” Africans starve, they die of Malaria, they get bit by the tsetse fly and die… basically God hates Africans, that’s the message we’ve been getting since Livingston and Stanley. So, who gives a rats ass if some gay, monkey ass fucking disease that’s going to be cured yesterday starts infecting some Africans? Fuck, they’re used to tragedy. They’ll get over it.

    The idea that AIDS kills never really took hold in the “Western population”. It’s one of those things you can acknowledge exists “AIDS? Sure, I’ve heard of that.” But then you go out and ride bareback through some amber pussy and come out the other side with sores on your face.

    So what Stephen is doing with the grandmothers is, in my opinion, one of those Eureka moments. Oh yeah, AIDS kills and it has killed two entire generations of people in Africa. Oh… right. Maybe we should give them some free drugs to, you know, save some of these people so the only Africans left aren’t stuffed exhibits in a museum.


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