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AIDS Warrior
Crusader at the crossroads

Stephen Lewis has left his UN post with Africa `irrevocably' in his soul

January 21, 2007
Olivia Ward
Staff Reporter/Toronto Star

It began with a vague conversation and turned into one of the world's most high-profile and high-pressured jobs.

Stephen Lewis's 5 1/2 years as United Nations HIV/AIDS envoy for Africa is now history. His term expired at the end of last year, with the exit of secretary-general Kofi Annan.

During those roller-coaster years, he was lionized by many and attacked by a few, travelled in countries from Angola to Zambia, and became the public face of AIDS advocacy for people whose life-and-death struggle against overwhelming odds would otherwise go ignored.

"Getting the job was an odd process," Lewis admits during a rare pause in Toronto between trips.

"I talked to (then-deputy secretary general) Louise Frechette, who told me they were struggling with this issue at the UN and were under great pressure to find a way of responding."

Typically for the UN, discussions were wide-ranging but inconclusive. Then, he recalls, in early May 2001 "I was sitting at home and I received a call from Salim Lone, head of news and media for the UN, and an old friend. He called just before noon, and he said, `We need some biographical information quickly. We're going to announce your appointment at the noon (media) briefing.'"

The news that he was to be Annan's new HIV/AIDS envoy for Africa left Lewis "completely nonplussed." But after agreeing to take the job, he plunged into it without hesitation.

"If it was going to mean anything, I realized that I must immediately get involved. I went to Botswana, which has the highest prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. But I discovered that after all the pressure to announce my new role, it was completely ignored."

Not for long, however.

A month later, Lewis went to the UN for a relaunch. And then, with the eyes of the worldwide media on him, he set off to figure out the job.

"When I asked what they wanted me to do, they left it entirely to me. There was no job description. It developed in the doing of it.".

With a small group of helpers and a "very modest budget," Lewis realized that his political skills - years of campaigning for the New Democratic Party - were his greatest asset.

"It was clear from the first that I'd be playing an advocacy role. What was most important was to identify the issues and try to make them real. To assert the positions as strongly as possible and fortify them with documentation on the ground."

In the process, he was all but swept under by the horror of death on an apocalyptic scale. People he had only just met were dead by the time he next visited their countries. Children were orphaned, and young women snuffed out. Whole countries were gutted by the deaths of workers, professionals and parents who could no longer care for their children.

"We set out to get some sense of HIV/AIDS in each country," says Lewis's special assistant during his UN job, Anurita Bains. "There were meetings with UN people on the ground, government officials, heads of state and health ministers. And always, with people in the `living with AIDS' networks. Stephen wanted to see what was happening at the grassroots level."

The results of his trips were reported to Annan. Meanwhile, Lewis spread his message through the international media, campaigning for affordable drugs, improvements in women's rights, and government recognition that HIV/AIDS was an issue of earth-shattering significance.

The frustrations were frequent. Sometimes, bureaucracy and incompetence held back progress in controlling the deadly disease. Sometimes, the obstacle was ideology - as when Lewis ran up against Washington's insistence that abstinence was better than condoms to combat AIDS, and when South Africa rejected anti-retroviral drugs for folk remedies.

Lewis also gave the back of his hand to the wealthy G8 countries, who he said were allowing millions to die without support, and the powerful international financial institutions that demanded debt repayment from destitute African nations.

But even when desperately needed anti-retroviral drugs found their way to AIDS victims, he learned that drug resistance would set in within a few years, and expensive "second line" drugs were needed to keep the survivors from relapsing.

Admittedly driven to the brink of breakdown by the overwhelming task in front of him, and so exhausted that at times he could barely speak, Lewis refused to despair. "As desperately heartbreaking as things were," he says, "there was no room for futility in the courage I saw at the grassroots."

Over the past half-decade, awards poured in. Among other honours, Lewis was named Companion of the Order of Canada, and was on TIME magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people.

Leaving the UN job was no retirement. He was recruited by McMaster University to be its first social sciences scholar in residence, and has begun a series of lectures there. He continues to be special adviser to the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and has maintained a link with Harvard University's Health and Human Rights Department.

But his ties with Africa are strong and permanent, he insists.

As head of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, he attracts funding - including a recent $1 million donation from Alberta publisher Jackie Flanagan - for projects that support African women and AIDS orphans. They include providing medical supplies and nursing training for community workers who feed and care for seriously ill women, and educating and counselling family members in AIDS-stricken households.

Meanwhile, Lewis is working "avidly" behind the scenes to stoke up interest in the UN's proposed women's agency, which he hopes will have the money and tools to save thousands, if not millions, of lives.

"Africa," he says, "is irrevocably in my soul."


"Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services"

Toronto Star
www.TheStar.com

 

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