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Published on Friday, December 1, 2000 in the Washington Post
World AIDS Day:
Putting a Face -- A Young Face -- on World's Horrors
by Donna Britt
 
Like most people, Ron Dellums had to see a human tragedy before he could fully grasp its magnitude.

The former congressman was describing how it felt to watch a beautiful African mother glide like a gazelle to the stage at a Johannesburg AIDS meeting--with her HIV-infected toddler clasped in her arms. That's when I remembered something unrelated: the recent newspaper photo of a Palestinian man trying to shield his son, 12, from bullets whizzing between Israeli and Palestinian gunmen. Moments later, the caption stated, the man in the picture lay wounded. His boy--who, thanks to the photo, felt like everyone's boy--was dead.

I'd stared hard at the record of a healthy, young life instantly extinguished despite his father's best, frenzied effort. Then I considered the thousands of similar tragedies in similar skirmishes--between Serbs and Croats or Tutsis and Hutus or whichever groups, for their own "good" reasons, are killing each other. I considered how often I didn't care, simply because I didn't see photos of these people's slain children.

Seeing makes all the difference. So when Dellums, the California Democrat who was the first African American elected in a majority-white district, recently addressed columnists about the African AIDS crisis, his mission was to make us see, too. To "burden" us, as he put it, with truth. "Each of us must assume responsibility for the knowledge we have," said Dellums, lithe and energetic at 65. "Once we know something, we are burdened with that knowledge."

Then the question becomes: "What do we do with it?"

If the issue is AIDS, many people's answer is: Try to ignore it. Forget Africa--AIDS in America is discomfitting enough, with its images of body fluids, bloody needles and wasted bodies; with our unspoken questions of "How did he/she get it?" No wonder many people distance themselves from the virus and its toll.

But we do so at our own peril. AIDS, Dellums stressed, is a "seamless" scourge that easily crosses every border, unmindful of victims' nationalities, skin colors or incomes. The staggering statistics: 58 million infected worldwide; 22 million dead (more than half of them African); nearly 5 million infected in India; about 700,000 reportedly infected in Eastern Europe and Russia. Even an encouraging Washington Post article about the United Nations' recent announcement that new cases had declined slightly in Africa cautioned: "The total picture remains one of a global disaster far greater than was imagined even a decade ago."

Imaginations are limited. It takes a human face--an aunt, a son, a smoothly gliding stranger--to make the numbers real. Dellums was attending a candlelight dinner celebrating the Bristol-Myers Squibb company's commitment to spend $100 million fighting AIDS in five African nations when the woman with the dying child was introduced. "She could not have been more than 19," he recalled, "carrying herself almost regally--as if she were struggling to transcend all of this. . . . There wasn't a dry eye in the room."

Dellums learned of African employers who hire three people to fill one job--because at least one new employee is sure to die. He saw tiny children living in the streets because they're among the more than 10 million African youngsters orphaned by AIDS. He saw students whose teachers were dying too quickly for schools to replace them, and kids who had abandoned their studies to nurse dying parents. Each victim, Dellums realized, "was replicated in the millions."

Being burdened with such horrors triggers a reaction: "You go to your hotel room, you cry," Dellums said. Then you realize, "crying won't get it . . . "

He told himself, "I'm an activist. . . . And what the issue needed was someone to start screaming."

Like a firebrand who began his 27-year congressional stint as an anti-Vietnam flamethrower and ended it as the respected former chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee. Today, Dellums said, "I don't have to be intelligent on several hundred issues as in Congress." By presiding over Healthcare International Management Co., which provides AIDS services to Africa, "I can focus almost laserlike on the issue, which literally has taken over my life."

The burden of knowing about AIDS's devastation in Africa needn't be so consuming. Citizens of a prosperous nation can urge their elected representatives to embrace debt relief to destitute African nations, several of which spend more repaying America for their past leaders' loans than on feeding and educating their own citizens.

By telling their representatives that they don't want AIDS to turn humanity's cradle into its coffin, Americans can pass the burden--to the politicians whom they elected to make the world a better place. Said Dellums, who should know:

"One letter alone, multiplied by a lot of others, can have an impact."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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