As I travel with business leaders to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, I am struck once again by the power and potential of Africa. Africa is stirring, alive with new hope and new possibility. But at the same time, Africa is literally in a struggle to the death. The AIDS plague in Africa is the worst global threat since the bubonic plague, which killed one-third of Europe's population in the 14th century.
This is not an exaggeration. AIDS is a global crisis. More people will die of AIDS in the next decade than in all the wars of the 20th century. But Africa will suffer the most. South of the Sahara more than 14 million people have died of AIDS already. In many countries -- Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe -- one in four young people is HIV positive, infected with the virus that carries the disease. The 21 countries with the highest HIV infection rates are all in Africa, in some of the world's poorest nations, with health systems least able to cope. In South Africa, where the plague is virulent, 3.5 million people will die of the disease in the next decade.
If not stemmed, the plague may literally roll back the advances of the past 40 years. Average life expectancy has gained 20 years in four decades; that may be lost by 2010. And the legacy will be 40 million starving and destitute orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, a human horror beyond imagination.
This is not just a health crisis. It is a security crisis, an economic crisis, a human catastrophe. Already the disease undermines economic development and political stability. It disproportionately kills the skilled, the educated, the mobile. Countries are losing teachers, entrepreneurs, administrators, doctors and nurses, in many cases faster than they can be replaced.
Reaction to this plague has been too slow for too long. The stigma of AIDS, like any sexually transmitted disease, hampers efforts to educate people and treat the sick. ``The first battle,'' as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, ``to be won in the war against AIDS is the battle to smash the wall of silence and stigma surrounding it.'' Africa's leaders must do more. In Uganda, a concerted campaign of sex education has helped curtail the spread of the disease. This must be replicated and expanded in countries throughout Africa. The leaders of Africa must speak loudly to their own people, in churches, schools and the media.
The international community has also been slow to react. In January, the United States made Africa the focus of the Security Council. Vice President Al Gore called on the world to respond and announced that the administration would increase by $150 million its support for the fight against AIDS abroad. Yet, even this is, as the New York Times editorialized, ``woefully inadequate.'' If AIDS were a Communist movement threatening to destabilize sub-Saharan Africa and murder millions of people, we would spend billions to fight it. And billions are needed. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. consortium coordinating the fight, told the Security Council that his program needs $1 billion to $3 billion a year for sub-Saharan Africa alone.
In this country, the black community has also been slow to react. In the United States, 40 percent of those who died of AIDS in 1998 were African American; 18 percent were Hispanic. As in Africa, ministers and black leaders have been uncomfortable addressing the disease. Now there is no choice. The NAACP has taken a new leadership role in calling for public education on prevention. The Congressional Black Caucus pushed the president to provide $156 million for AIDS prevention in the minority community last year and to add another $100 million next year. Now, even as we focus on the plague at home, we must use our political influence to demand action to save Africa from disaster. If this disease were devastating Ireland or Israel or Greece, imagine the pressure for U.S. action. Now African Americans must act with the same urgency and in greater numbers.
The pharmaceutical companies also have to change. Only last year, 40 companies were engaged in suing South Africa because that country was struggling to find ways to import cheaper, unlicensed copies of drugs and to produce generic versions of its own. Africans cannot afford the drugs that have saved and extended so many lives in this country. France is now calling for a meeting of the drug companies, the wealthy nations and the countries most afflicted to find ways to make affordable drugs available. One thing is clear: the pharmaceutical companies will either join this effort, or find themselves in pitched battles with governments and concerned people across the globe.
Can Africa be saved? It can and must be. In the 14th century, no one knew what do to about the plague. Now, we know what to do -- we simply have to organize ourselves to act. There is no alternative.
Jesse Jackson's column appears weekly. (c) 2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate