Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS and former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, visited Yale Tuesday as part of a United States tour following the release of his book, “Race Against Time.” The event, sponsored by Pierson College and Canadian Students Association, included a presentation by Lewis addressing his experiences in Africa as well as a discussion with Canadian journalist Pamela Wallen, who is currently serving as Canada’s Consul General in New York.
Lewis, who was named alongside the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2005, spoke openly and passionately about what he called the “overwhelming” nature of the AIDS pandemic in Africa. He said the most viable solutions to the problem are the empowerment of women and a greater and more genuine contribution from the Western world.
“I never imagined in my adult life that I would be a witness to the carnage caused by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS,” he said, “In Africa, the situation is absolutely desperate.”
Lewis said the disease’s ravaging of Africa’s population is different from that of the rest of the world for four reasons: the utter pervasiveness of death, the extreme vulnerability of women, the loss of productive capacity in many nations and the unanticipated rise in the number of orphans and child-headed households.
The lack of action taken by his own employers at the United Nations is no less than “criminal negligence,” Lewis said, and the fact that so many people on a single continent can be considered expendable is unfathomable.
“Every time the Western nations make a commitment [to Africa], only a few weeks later, the commitments are betrayed,” he said. “We cannot find a microscopic smidgeon to ameliorate the human condition.”
Lewis attributed this alleged lack of a real response to the notion that giving money to Africa is considered roughly equivalent to throwing it into the “sinkhole of corruption.” But he said he cannot legitimately explain it without acknowledging the possibility of racism toward sub-Saharan Africa from the Western world. If a health crisis this serious were taking place in North America, Lewis said, it would be solved in a week.
Lewis named the William J. Clinton Foundation as an example of a thoughtful and effective organization that can help solve the kinds of problems he enumerated.
Ricky Leiter ’06, president of the Canadian Students Association, said Lewis’ humanitarian efforts are nearly unparalleled on a global scale.
“If the world had more people like Stephen Lewis, the world would be a better place,” Leiter said.
Marianne Schuck ’09, who attended the talk, said she was glad to see someone with prominence and credibility speak out so frankly on such a contentious, yet important, issue.
“What he puts forth that I admire the most is our responsibility as human beings,” she said. “It’s so good to know that there’s someone being recognized as a humanitarian.”