Political will Editorial
Stabroek News
April 30, 2002

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An important conference was convened recently at Le Meridien Pegasus. The United States Secretary for Health and Human Development, Tommy Thompson, came to Guyana to meet CARICOM ministers of health and some heads of government to discuss the crucial issue of stemming the rampaging HIV and AIDS epidemic in this part of the world.

It was not by chance that Guyana was selected to host the meeting. CARICOM health ministers were already in Guyana for the sixth Council on Human and Social Development (COHSOD) caucus held earlier last week and, with the exception of Haiti, Guyana has the highest rate of infection per population in the region.

Mr Thompson pledged to provide assistance in several areas and through a number of US agencies, some of which have already been visible in Guyana and the Caribbean. A people's person, he found the time to visit a non-governmental organization, which has been leading the fight against the disease and chat with the mostly young people who have benefited from its education and awareness programmes.

A downer at the conference was the announcement by Secretary Thompson, the US representative on the board of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, that Guyana's application to the Global Fund had been refused. Applications received from CARICOM and the Dominican Republic were also not recommended for funding.

In April 2001, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had issued a call to action for the creation of a Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS. Declarations and financial commitments were issued prior to, during, and after the groundbreaking United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on HIV/AIDS in June 2001 and at the G8 Summit in Genoa in July 2001. Contributors to the fund include the governments of the US, Japan, Italy, the UK, the European Commission, Canada, Switzerland, among others and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Olympic Committee among other private sector organisations.

Funding from this body would have provided a huge fillip to Guyana's efforts at stamping out HIV infection, which have not been minimal, but financially compressed, reflective of the country's budget constraints. However, all is not lost. Secretary Thompson has offered to provide the expertise from his department to work with all applicants to ensure that applications get the best possible attention before they are resubmitted.

While Guyana is more than likely to eventually receive aid under the fund, this setback means that programmes projected to be jumpstarted with this assistance would have to be pushed back.

But the conference had several highlights. Apart from the wealth of assistance promised for the region as a whole, Guyanese living with and involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS have been given reason to hope that much more will be done now, 21 years after the disease was first officially reported by the US Centers for Disease Control, which catalogued five cases. President Bharrat Jagdeo conceded that part of the problem was that governments and policy-makers had refused to hear the voices of NGOs and scientists, which were screaming about the dangers of the disease. He acknowledged that lack of understanding and stigmatization contributed to the lack of attention paid to the disease. He said that this had gone on for too long.

No doubt, persons involved in the fight would have welcomed these remarks by the President. His non-attendance at the UNGASS on HIV and AIDS, might have been misconstrued as a lack of interest on his part. Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy attended on the President's behalf.

By contrast, nearly two years ago, Prime Minister of Barbados Owen Arthur had eclipsed the rhetoric about HIV and AIDS not being a health issue, but a social and developmental one, and taken the initiative to remove AIDS from his country's health ministry and place it under his direct responsibility.

Barbados has a lower rate of infection than Guyana, but its government must have recognized the impact AIDS could have on its main GDP earner - the tourist industry. This forward thinking has seen tremendous rewards, with Barbados being the first ever recipient of World Bank funds for HIV and AIDS.

The transformation of President Jagdeo's words into action can work a similar miracle here. Not in terms of accessing a World Bank loan, as there is no point in borrowing money to fight AIDS when grant funding is available, but in terms of further de-stigmatising the disease and heightening the priority of the fight. Guyana needs this in the worst possible way.