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Commentary: September 11th and HIV

November 2001

We witnessed the inconceivable. 1.2 million tons of concrete and steel buckling before our eyes, crushing lives, obliterating dreams, fomenting fear.

We reached out instinctively for those we loved. Needing to touch one another, speak with one another, cry with one another, be assured those lives most immediately known to us, precious to us, were present and accounted for.

For long hours, we bore witness to unspeakable horrors. People choosing death by jumping from impossible heights to escape death by flame; people making final phone calls to loved ones from hijacked planes and doomed offices, people wandering dazed and injured through ash and smoke filled streets, like bloodied ghosts.

We mourned the loss of thousands. The deaths of the janitor, broker, firefighter and secretary were equally wrenching to us. We became aware that the lives of those unknown to us were precious to us as well, ripped from the fabric of our national family with calculated, premeditated cruelty.

Yet just when things seemed hopeless, when the loss and the terror and the enormity of it all threatened to overwhelm us, the perseverance and courage and selflessness that is the best of the American spirit emerged from the rubble and the smoke.

Bucket brigades formed on stories high piles of rubble. Searching carefully, gently for possible survivors. Atop the mountainous pile of ruin, one small bucket at a time, the search for survivors, the search for precious life, continued. We were reminded again that against all odds, the human spirit could prevail. We were reminded again that any momentous undertaking always begins with the first small step.

As I reflect on the past two decades of the HIV pandemic, I see many parallels in our collective response to the September 11th atrocities. So many initial small steps that have resulted in massive change:

  • A single phone line installed in 1982 to answer questions about a mysterious disease becomes a world-renowned hotline.

  • A few needles exchanged under cover of a baby carriage by a handful of courageous volunteers becomes the largest needle exchange in the country.

  • A thought about applying the concept of "disaster relief" assistance to the national disaster of HIV/AIDS becomes the Ryan White CARE Act.

And now we begin our small steps into expanding treatment access in the developing world. Through the creation of Pangaea, our affiliate global AIDS foundation, we are confident this small step will ultimately result in momentous change towards ending the pandemic and the human suffering caused by HIV.

As the courageous tenders of the bucket brigade demonstrated in New York last month, in the face of overwhelming odds, you simply have to start somewhere.

Back to the SFAF OUTReach November 2001 contents page.

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This article was provided by San Francisco AIDS Foundation. It is a part of the publication OUTReach. Visit San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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