Augenstein and Carel: Obama’s unfulfilled promise

On Saturday, about a dozen Yalies joined forces with Harvard students in Bridgeport; surprisingly enough, they were coming together to protest, of all things, an Obama rally. Why would Yale and Harvard undergraduates and School of Public Health students protest against an administration which, by and large, we are hoping will be re-elected in two years? The concern is simple, but of enormous import: This is a pivotal political moment during the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. The U.S. has the opportunity to powerfully fight the disease, both through its own contributions and by setting the bar high for other countries to follow. However, since assuming the presidency, President Obama has neglected the pandemic. In such a crucial area, he has failed to live up to the promises he made during his 2008 campaign.

Candidate Obama promised to dedicate $50 billion by 2013 to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), including $1 billion in new money each year. Yet over the past two years, President Obama has fallen far short of what he pledged, only increasing spending on global AIDS relief in increments that have not even kept up with inflation.

This alarming shortfall in America’s contribution has enormous implications. AIDS is a treatable condition with a relatively inexpensive treatment. Yet ten million patients in developing countries still lack access to these lifesaving medications. According to a recent Lancet study, if funding levels remain flat, an additional 14 million people will become infected with HIV in the next 20 years and seven million people will die from AIDS.

Increased funding for international AIDS treatment has other far-reaching benefits. Studies show that antiretroviral drugs reduce HIV transmission by 92 percent, making it the single most effective form of prevention as well as treatment. Furthermore, investing in the infrastructure required to combat AIDS has had a profoundly positive effect on global health as a whole, improving care systems, drug-delivery networks and basic primary health services.

But Obama responded on Saturday not by taking responsibility for his failure to address the pandemic but rather by arguing, cynically, that Republicans would do worse. As New York Magazine wrote in their coverage of the protest, Obama’s “advice that AIDS funding advocates go bother ‘the other side,’ who aren’t the president … doesn’t sound very effective.” Deflecting blame and trying to turn global AIDS funding into a partisan issue — especially after campaigning so vehemently about crossing the aisle — is deeply disappointing. Would Republicans really do worse? PEPFAR was a Republican creation of President Bush. And given Obama’s inaction, the question is irrelevant; the president has yet to even ask Congress to fund at the levels he promised.

Obama’s politicized response only reaffirms our larger frustration with the president, for shirking his word and his accountability. It is Obama who is now calling the shots, and it is his leadership on HIV/AIDS that we are all seeking.

To be clear, our protest was in no way an effort to dethrone Obama or the Democratic Party, especially so close to elections; we support him in general. But on global HIV/AIDS funding, Obama has dropped the ball. Interrupting his speech on Saturday was a last resort to reach Obama’s ear after so many other attempts by AIDS activists have been ignored — letters from medical school deans across the country, petitions sent to the White House, meetings of AIDS advocacy groups with White House officials, and numerous editorials, including one in the New York Times penned by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Many continue to claim that flat-lining AIDS funding was the best Obama could do given the global financial crisis. Yet compared to the nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill and the approximately $3.6 billion that the U.S. spends each month in Afghanistan, it is shameful that our government cannot muster up a $1 billion a year increase for a pandemic that has, single-handedly, cut the life expectancy of sub-Saharan Africans by a quarter.

As Yalies committed to global health and poverty reduction, it is our responsibility to stand up and hold our government accountable for this appalling shortcoming. Many of us have served in communities around the globe and have witnessed, first-hand, the extent to which preventable and treatable diseases can destroy families, undermine economies and steal people’s ability to lead dignified lives. We must do everything in our power to reshape the national dialogue on this issue and push Obama to live up to his promises, promises which could truly shape the future of AIDS.

President Obama, we implore you to follow through on your commitment and be the leader for which we all hoped. We want you to be remembered not as the partisan president who let the pandemic slip out of our grasp, but as the world leader who brought it to a halt.

Jared Augenstein is a first-year student in the School of Public Health. David Carel is a sophomore in Pierson College.

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