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Bush Backtracking on AIDS a Slap in the Face for Bono
Published on Monday, July 1, 2002 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Bush Backtracking on AIDS a Slap in the Face for Bono
by David Corn
 

So this is the thanks Bono gets?

Just weeks ago, the U2 front man was jetting through Africa with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and exploring the deep poverty of the continent. Media in tow, the unlikely duo visited cities and villages, often inspecting hospitals, orphanages and clinics where the tragic effects of the AIDS pandemic could be witnessed.

By conducting high-visibility public appearances with O'Neill and George W. Bush, the rock star has shared his hipness with the Bush squares. Not since a decked-out Elvis Presley posed with President Richard Nixon has there been such a lopsided transfer of cool in Washington.

To be fair, Bono has probably prompted the misers to open the purse more than they otherwise would. But when Bush the other day announced a supposedly "important new" anti-AIDS program for Africa, it was not only an insult to the millions being killed overseas by this plague, it was a slap in the face to Bono.

At the White House, Bush said, "In Africa, the disease clouds the future of entire nations... In the hardest hit countries of sub-Saharan Africa, as much as one-third of the adult population is infected with HIV, and 10 percent or more of the schoolteachers will die of AIDS within five years." He proposed "to make $500 million available" to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to children.

Stopping inherited AIDS is one of the best bang-for-a-buck components of an assault against AIDS. A single dose of medication given at birth will work half the time. This is also one of the least controversial aspects of AIDS prevention because it has nothing to do with sex or condoms. It focuses on newborns, not adults. Consequently, it does not offend the religious right and cultural conservatives.

So what's the catch? First, Bush was proposing funding that does not meet the actual need. Second, he was taking credit for money already approved by Congress. Finally, he was covering up the fact that his administration had pressed Congress to lower spending for this activity. Bush was spreading it thick in the Rose Garden.

The President expects his project to prevent nearly 150,000 infant infections over the next five years. The problem is, there are about 800,000 children born with AIDS each year, according to the United Nations. That means the Bush initiative is aiming at helping less than 4 percent of this population. Moreover, $200 million of this supposedly "new" initiative was approved for use this year by Congress days before Bush's announcement. What he added was $300 million for this type of AIDS prevention in the following two years. Which averages out to $150 million a year - a cut from the current level.

It gets worse. At the start of June, several Republicans - notably, Sens. Bill Frist and Jesse Helms - were trying to raise overseas AIDS funding this year by $500 million. But the White House leaned on Frist and Helms and got the pair to slice that to $200 million.

When Bush hailed his initiative as one that would save lives, he could have as easily said, "Thanks to me, this program will save fewer lives than it would have had Frist and Helms gotten their way." As Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat who has worked with Frist and Helms to increase global AIDS funding, griped, "Just as we've achieved bipartisan momentum to make a real difference on the toll this devastating disease is taking on Africa, the administration announces a retreat and pretends it's a forward charge."

Bush boasts that his administration committed nearly $1 billion to global HIV/AIDS assistance this year and has sent $500 million to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. That sounds like a healthy contribution. But relief and medical groups argue this is far from sufficient. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pressing the international community to kick in $7 billion to $10 billion a year to the global anti-AIDS fund, with the United States covering about one-fifth of that. Catholic Relief Services has called for a $2 billion increase in U.S. funding for the effort against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, of which half would go to sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 28 million people have AIDS.

Bush shows no signs of rising to the challenge.

Hours after making his disingenuous AIDS announcement, Bush attended a black-tie Republican fundraising extravaganza that collected $30 million or so, with a major portion coming from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Robert Ingram, GlaxoSmithKline's chief operating officer, was the numero-uno fund-raiser for the event. This drug company not too long ago tried to prevent the South African government from manufacturing lifesaving anti-AIDS drugs. This event was, sadly, a true Washington moment.

That day, Bono issued a statement in response to Bush's "new" AIDS program. "This crisis urgently demands an historic presidential AIDS initiative," the U2er observed. "This isn't it but could be the beginning of it."

Bono deserves credit for pushing the tightwads of Washington and the West to acknowledge publicly the problems of global poverty and global AIDS. How long, though, can this Irish musician sing a song of hope regarding Bush, O'Neill and the rest, when he still hasn't found anything close to what he - and those African mothers - are looking for?

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation.

Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer

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