In the 1930s and ’40s, the world’s leading nations stood idly while millions of innocent people were slaughtered by evil regimes in Europe and Asia. The rich and powerful now have a chance to redeem themselves in Africa.

The African AIDS epidemic will massacre millions of people in the coming years, far more than those killed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan combined. But the West can reduce the carnage by extending life spans of the infected, making years with AIDS more livable and preventing the spread of the disease.

Fighting AIDS in undeveloped and often ill-governed nations far from home will require a great investment of money and political will. But the cost of action can at least be measured. The moral cost of inaction in such a crisis is beyond our ethicists’ ability to calculate.

Here’s a brief outline of the situation: About 26 million in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV — over two-thirds of the world’s HIV cases — and most cannot come close to affording the high-tech treatments available to patients in the United States and other rich countries. A complex web of patent law, distribution headaches and inadequate local facilities stands between the dying millions and the drugs that could save them.

For a Yale scientist’s perspective on the effort to bring a drug developed here to Africa at reasonable costs, see Professor William Prusoff’s op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times. He discusses how media coverage about drugs made from the compound d4T — first in this newspaper and then in the national press — helped spur Yale and pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb to slash prices for sub-Saharans.

Although the d4T story seems good for the cause, much more needs to be done. Not every drug will receive New York Times coverage, and piecemeal solutions cannot adequately respond to a crisis this large.

The United States and her allies must act boldly to save millions of innocent lives. Powerful governments of nations that drug companies call home should lobby the companies either to send drugs to Africa at affordable prices or allow others to produce generic versions. What the industry refuses to hand over, the governments should buy. Some price gouging may go unresolved in the hurry to avert mass death, but so what?

Additionally, some people have asserted that quelling the AIDS crisis would actually be good economics for the richer nations. Because the horrific devastation AIDS leaves in its wake destabilizes governments and economies, America and her allies might save more by preventing numerous wars and vast destruction of property than they would have to pay in their intervention efforts.

But let us assume that economics argues against action; so what? Modern students of history do not chide the Roosevelt and Truman administrations for ignoring the Holocaust because the slaughtered Jews could have added valuable human resources to the global economy. We don’t say the Holocaust was a tragedy because of all the future stock brokers and scientists sent to their deaths as children. The horror of the Holocaust comes from the humanity and innocence of its victims, not their lost productivity.

With that in mind, the parallels to the African AIDS crisis should be obvious. It does not matter that the Africans suffer today from disease rather than man-made weapons. If we had allowed viruses to kill Europe’s Jews instead of watching Germans do so, the results would have been equally terrible. And our moral fault would be as great.

If anything deserves the attention of student activists, this is it. Anyone moved to protest the plight of low-wage workers in Latin American sweatshops or New Haven history sections should be ready to fight tirelessly for the African AIDS victims. I make this point not to be flip, but to demonstrate the gravity of the situation at hand. Far less important issues have roiled this campus and others. Compared to African AIDS, even Apartheid and the Vietnam War appear almost trivial.

The crisis of our time is at hand. How we respond to it will be the measure of our era’s humanity.

Those who believe that government can solve our problems should lobby governments to act. Those who trust corporations to behave responsibly should remind the pharmaceutical industry to do so.

Ben Trachtenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.