Wendy Miya was a few days old when she was abandoned on the doorstep of a Salvation Army hostel in Johannesburg. Being dropped on the doorstep was a stroke of luck. A lot of the other babies were rescued from rubbish dumps or waste ground. Now Wendy Miya lived in a bright room on the second floor of the hostel. By the time I saw her, nine months after her arrival, Wendy was in the terminal stages of Aids. She struggled to keep any food down and cried incessantly. I'd seen babies like her in the famine zones of Ethiopia and Sudan, little stick children with protruding bones and fingers like slender twigs, and brown eyes too big for their emaciated faces.
They are children who never struggle in the arms of strangers for that would demand strength of a kind they've never had. The nurses provided Wendy Miya with clean sheets and tenderness. They would do this until such time as she died. Her death was of course inevitable. Wendy Miya would not be receiving any life-sustaining drugs. By the time of my visit in early summer the Salvation Army nurses had already buried five of "their" children. All were infants who'd been abandoned by HIV-positive parents and whose only family now were the hostel nurses.
I went down to the Eastern Cape for a few days to film at a local hospital. When I got back to Johannesburg, the hostel had left a message. Wendy Miya was dead. A few days later they held a funeral service in a small room next to where the children are given their meals. On the walls there were children's drawings and in bright colours the names of the children who had died that year. Wendy's coffin was open and she looked as if she was asleep. The crying, haunted face of the previous week now resembled something like the image of infancy we cherish: the child slumbering on the threshold of morning.
Wendy Miya was buried in a pauper's grave in Alexandra township. The nurses said their farewells at the hostel. The graveside scene was more than they could bear. And so the only people there were the undertaker and the grave diggers. It was the death of Nkosi Johnson from Aids this week that brought Wendy Miya to mind. Nkosi became an icon for the catastrophe that has overtaken his country. He was hailed by Nelson Mandela and spoke movingly of the plight of Aids sufferers at the international Aids conference in Durban last year. Government ministers and experts from the richest nations on earth were present to hear Nkosi speak. The media fell in love with the little boy and I thought to myself: at last the wake-up call they can't ignore.
Never mind that the developed world had sat on its hands while Aids cut a swathe through Africa, Asia and the countries of the Eastern Bloc. There was still time to act. Actually I don't know that I ever really felt optimistic. It was more a very cautious species of hope. I recognise now that even that was a leap too far. Because for all the fine words since Durban, Aids continues to be treated like a minor crisis. If you were feeling charitable you might call it the result of indifference. But as I'm not feeling charitable this morning I will instead call it moral abandonment.
I have so far resisted the use of the word Holocaust to describe what is happening, simply because the word is too often hijacked by special interest groups. But tell me how else should we describe this vast catastrophe? Epidemic, pandemic? They are doctor's words. But they cannot encompass the physical, economic and spiritual crisis which the Aids holocaust has created. Thirty-five million of the world's poorest people are facing death from Aids. You could take all the casualties of all the wars since 1945 and you wouldn't come close to that figure. Seventy five per cent of that number live in Africa. Where is the evidence that the political élite in this country gives a damn that 35 million people in the developing world are facing death from Aids?
In all the acres of newsprint devoted to the election, all the manifesto promises and pledges I couldn't find a single sentence about Aids. Maybe it's there in the small print and I've missed it. But Aids is regarded as a "foreign affairs" or "developing world" issue. And foreign affairs was never going to be a feature of the campaign. Britain is not at war these days, and apart from the lacklustre debate over Europe we are consumed by domestic concerns. But you might have thought that the revelation that our own HIV infection rates up 14 per cent in the past year would winkle some statement of concern, some agenda for action out of the political parties.
If it has, they've taken good care to keep it quiet. Not that the media classes are much different. We only cover Aids in fits and starts. Don McCullin's extraordinary photographic journey through the Aids-ravaged hinterland of Africa was the subject of a long magazine piece (and is now an exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery) but McCullin himself told me of the difficulties he had in persuading British editors that Aids was a subject they should care about.
Nkosi Johnson was the subject of a moving profile on television, but again the broadcast media are part of a world where Aids is something only featured on a sporadic basis. If you want to wake the world up to the greatest human tragedy of our generation you need to be consistent. And the looming deaths of tens of millions of people is not only a hell of a big story by the most straightforward journalistic criteria, it is one of those stories where there is a clear moral imperative. Please don't tell me Aids has been "done".
Nkosi Johnson's death will make many people weep. Decent and well-meaning people will watch his funeral on television and feel a lump in their throats. But our compassion is promiscuous and it is ever in demand. The danger is that we weep for Nkosi but see his death as a singular event and not one death out of 14 million since Aids was diagnosed in the Seventies.
More dangerous is the tendency to weep and then throw our hands in the air. Another death in a far off place about which we can do nothing. All those millions, how on earth can we save them? Even if all the West's leaders and all the big drug companies were to get together in the morning and form a task force, wouldn't it be too late for those infected?
No. The drugs exist to sustain life. They are available to people in this country on the National Health Service. They are not available to people in most of Africa because they don't have an NHS and because the big drug companies don't want to see their profits collapse by allowing cheap drugs to flood the markets. Getting life-sustaining drugs into African villages would involve an unprecedented financial and logistical operation.
It would also be the most important statement we could make about the kind of world we want at the start of the new millennium. There is a new community of conscience around such issues as debt in the developing world and the sales of arms to corrupt dictatorships. The campaign run by Jubilee 2000 succeeded in shaming governments into action beyond anybody's wildest dreams. If we are not all to become collectively complicit in the moral abandonment over Aids, it is time to start screaming.
The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent