Prophetic voices and the AIDS epidemic

by David Barstow last modified Jun 08, 2017 05:14 PM
Prophetic voices and the AIDS epidemic

Interfaith prayer vigil at AIDS 2016. © Paul Jeffrey/WCC

Jun 08, 2017

Now, perhaps more than at any time in the history of the AIDS epidemic, the world needs strong prophetic voices from Christians as well as from people of other faiths. HIV and AIDS have faded from public consciousness.

For a variety of reasons, most people don’t think about AIDS much anymore. Perhaps they think the war is already over, that the scientific and medical advances of the last few decades have solved the problem. Perhaps they think that the epidemic only affects other people, people we don’t need to care about. Perhaps it’s just fatigue, with other issues pushing AIDS aside. Whatever the cause, the lack of attention and awareness may lead us to make some serious mistakes with some even more serious consequences.

Global funding for the AIDS response was already trending downward, but President Trump’s proposed budget marks a dramatic and frightening turning point. The budget includes a 20% cut in funding for PEPFAR, the primary international program in the United States AIDS response.

A recent New York Times article indicated that the proposed cut would cost about a million lives. That was a one-year estimate. If we assume the cut is permanent, and that other countries follow the American lead, then we will ultimately lose the war against AIDS. The effects will be catastrophic in human terms. Up to 16 million people may die by the year 2030.

This chart shows the number of AIDS-related deaths for two scenarios. The blue line is taken from the UNAIDS Fast Track report. The number of deaths gradually declines to about 340,000 per year in 2030. The black line shows an adaptation of the UNAIDS model to reflect a 20% overall reduction in the global investment to fight AIDS. The number of deaths rises to about 1.9 million per year by 2030. The total difference in deaths between the two lines from 2018 to 2030 is about 16 million people.

This chart shows the number of AIDS-related deaths for two scenarios. The blue line is taken from the UNAIDS Fast Track report. The number of deaths gradually declines to about 340,000 per year in 2030. The black line shows an adaptation of the UNAIDS model to reflect a 20% overall reduction in the global investment to fight AIDS. The number of deaths rises to about 1.9 million per year by 2030. The total difference in deaths between the two lines from 2018 to 2030 is about 16 million people.

Perhaps these projections are overly pessimistic. Perhaps other countries will not follow the American lead. Perhaps the overall global reduction will be only 10%. We still wouldn’t win the war against AIDS, but there would be only 13 million needless deaths.

Please pause for a minute to think about the use of the word “only” in the last sentence. Should we really consider it to be good news that “only” 13 million people will needlessly die?

This chart shows the “10% reduction” in the context of the history of the AIDS epidemic. If there is “only” a 10% reduction in the global AIDS response, then the epidemic in the 2030s may be “only” a little better than it was in the worst days of the epidemic in the 1990s and 2000s.

This chart shows the “10% reduction” in the context of the history of the AIDS epidemic. If there is “only” a 10% reduction in the global AIDS response, then the epidemic in the 2030s may be “only” a little better than it was in the worst days of the epidemic in the 1990s and 2000s.

Whether it is 16 million or “only” 13 million, those people do not need to die. The war against AIDS can still be won. We have the medical tools. We just need to use them. That’s what the UNAIDS Fast Track strategy is all about.

If we follow the strategy, we can end AIDS as a public health threat by the year 2030. The only question is whether the world has the collective will to do so. A cut by the country that has historically been the moral and financial leader in the fight suggests that the world has lost the collective will to win the war. We need people of faith to strengthen our resolve and to restore our will.

Now is not the time to be silent. The world is poised to turn its back on the many millions of people who are affected by HIV and AIDS.

Turning our backs is exactly what Jesus warned us against in his discussion of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Instead of turning our backs, instead of remaining silent, we must raise our voices, shouting so that the world will hear, so that the world will understand the moral urgency, so that the world will re-commit to ending the AIDS epidemic, so that all will know that justice and peace are coming.