The Body Covers: The XIII International AIDS Conference
July 13, 2000
The closing ceremony went as everything else in this conference, smooth and seamless. The ceremony began with a dance performance and a song, which I suspect will become fixed features of future International AIDS Conferences, much like the performances at the Olympics or World Cup. Stefano Vella, president of the International AIDS Society, spoke quite humbly, thanking everybody for coming to the conference and proving to skeptics who had not come that they were wrong. He said that we clearly have begun to break the silence about AIDS in the third world, but this is not a one-day job, it will take years to really break the silence. He credited Mark Wainberg, the previous president of the International AIDS society, who gave a short speech, for selecting Durban to hold the conference and proving that events like these can be organized and held in the developing world. Vella also thanked Wainberg for never wavering, even during periods of harsh criticism because of both the South African government and its President's attitude. Boycotts do not work (ask Castro) and an open dialogue is invariably preferable. Paul Simon's concert in South Africa with Ladysmith Black Mambazo ("Graceland"), did more to end apartheid in the minds of many people in the developed world than did the many years of the blockade.
Conference chair, Dr. Hoosen Coovadia, also spoke. He noted that 4,500 of the 12,000 people who attended this conference were African. This is an impressive number and clearly the first time so many Africans were able to attend the International AIDS Conference. He thanked everyone for coming despite the boycott and encouraged all of us to take an interest in the suffering in the developing world. People were very moved by what he had to say and as I looked around I could see that there were tears in everybody's eyes.
Then came former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela looked quite fragile climbing the stairs (he is 82 years old now). The entire audience immediately stood, and many of the African attendees spontaneously, began to dance and sing an African song. If your eyes were not wet from before, they were by now. It is amazing the love of this people for Mandela. It is incredible that someone who had spent more than 20 years in prison does not have any resentment, and transmits this clearly to his people. He gave a nice discourse, sometimes unfocused, but who cares? Those who were expecting a strong statement against President Mbeki, did not get it. Mandela is also a politician. He knows the rules and he knows his people. He said that all of the discussion about Mbeki just distracted us from our focus -- which is facing the worst pandemic mankind has ever seen. He added that, in his experience, in all controversies no one is absolutely right or wrong (something that we "Westerners" should learn).
Mandela called for action now. We will be judged harshly if we fail to act. AIDS in Africa is killing more people than all wars, malaria, and infectious diseases together -- sometimes joining forces with them. It is depleting Africa of resources, robbing schools of teachers and children, and affecting the necessary economic development.
Then Mandela outlined some of the things that can be done: HIV infection can be prevented by investing in information, promoting abstinence, safe sex and condom use. We must also work on preventing STDs, implementing confidential testing and counseling, introducing measures to reduce mother-to-child transmission and avoiding the stigma and discrimination of HIV infection. He made no mention of antiretroviral treatment, I think because of the overwhelming cost for the developing world at this point. He also asked for research for appropriate vaccines.
When he finished his speech, a doctor who works for the World Health Organization (WHO), shouted into the microphone words that only the Africans in the audience understood. Mandela was smiling. And the audience was cheering the words. We all sat quietly, very touched.
Then Mandela left and, to an extent, the climax was broken. There was the passing of the flame to Barcelona, there was a duo song with a pop singer and an opera singer, who sang "Barcelona" in a revival of Freddy Mercury (who died of AIDS) and Monserrat Cavalle's inauguration of the Olympic games in 1992. José Maria Gatell gave a short speech about Barcelona. I felt sorry for him because everyone's minds (and bodies) were somewhere else.
The ceremony concluded.
I think all of the attendees would agree that this was a wonderful conference and that having it in Africa was one of the International AIDS Society's best ideas. Barcelona I am sure will do a super job as well (I was born over there and so I am biased), but Durban has been an unforgettable experience and has changed many peoples' view of the developing world forever.
In fact, after the experience in Durban I think all of the future International AIDS Conferences after Barcelona should take place in the developing world. We need conferences both in Latin America and in Southeast Asia. These conferences help raise awareness not only in the developing world, but also help the developed world understand where the "real" problems are -- and, of course, they have a secondary benefit of also helping to boost the local economy.
Let's start e-mailing Stefano Vella and the International AIDS society.
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