"The Jewish witness that I am speaks of my people's suffering as a warning," the 77-year-old told the 191-member UN General Assembly. "He sounds the alarm to prevent these tragedies from being done to others. And yes, I am convinced if the world had listened to those of us who tried to speak we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia, and naturally Rwanda."
In hearing those words, I could not help but reminisce about those haunting black-and-white images depicted in documentaries about the Holocaust. Images of horror captured by the Nazis in an attempt to memorialize the inhuman acts they committed against so many men, women, and children ... revealing what horrors humans can inflict upon each other in the name of some perverse ideology. Also images of hope, such as those photographs taken by American and Russian soldiers as they liberated concentration camps and found survivors ... revealing a triumph of the human spirit against sheer evil.
In my dream, a similar commemoration was taking place. This time, the UN General Assembly was convened to commemorate the anniversary of eradicating HIV/AIDS. Speaking to the august body was one survivor of a plague that to date has killed more than 30 million men, women, and children worldwide. Taking the guise of our South African colleague, Zachie Achmat (funny how our brains work), this survivor spoke of the devastation wrought by the AIDS pandemic, and sounded a warning for responses to life-threatening diseases of epic proportions.
"I was among the 'infected' once, and so I speak to you as a both a survivor and a witness of the worst plague to affect humankind in modern history. I do so as a warning to you and to future generations," the now octogenarian Achmat said in my dream. "Never again can humanity turn its back on the suffering of even the least of its brethren, never again can the affluent nations of the world abrogate their responsibility toward the poorest nations on the Earth, never again can dogma trump science, never again can profit outweigh charity, and never again can we allow so many millions of our brothers and sisters to die as a result of our collective neglect."
I wonder if, as with the images of the dead and the "walking dead" taken at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, images of the ravages wrought by AIDS will provoke in us all feelings of regret and shame at not having done more sooner. For certainly, there are images so evocative (some published in last month's IAPAC Monthly) of the horror lived by millions 60 years ago -- most notably of suffering and death of millions in sub-Saharan Africa. Will these images someday be joined in our memories by more hopeful ones depicting a triumph of the human spirit -- aided by charity, compassion, and science -- against this insidious virus?
In one of those rare instances, I can recall this dream vividly. And, as I do so, I am saddened by the reality that it is only a dream far from becoming reality. For we live in a world in which, in 2004, 4.9 million people became newly HIV-infected; in which 3.1 million people died of AIDS-related complications; in which countless millions are without access to life-saving and -enhancing antiretroviral drugs; and in which the will to improve the lot of so many men, women, and children often ebbs and wanes with the political winds. So, as we start 2005, let us recommit to overcoming the obstacles that lie in the way of achieving our dream of freeing the world of HIV/AIDS. And, as important, let us heed both Elie Wiesel's real-time and Zachie Achmat's dream-state warnings: Let us not look back 10, 20, 30 years from now and regret that we did not do more.
José M. Zuniga is President/CEO of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC), and Editor-in-Chief of the IAPAC Monthly.