Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No Shoes Being Thrown in Africa

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - In her AIDS-scarred South African township, Sweetness Mzolisa leads a chorus of praise for George W. Bush that echoes to the deserts of Namibia, the hills of Rwanda and the villages of Ethiopia.

Like countless Africans, Mzolisa looks forward to Barack Obama becoming America's first black president Jan 20. But — like countless Africans — Mzolisa says she will always be grateful to Bush for his war on AIDS, which has helped to treat more than 2 million Africans, support 10 million more, and revitalize the global fight against the disease.

"It has done a lot for the people of South Africa, for the whole of the African continent," says Mzolisa, a feisty mother of seven. "It has changed so many people's lives, saved so many people's lives."

President Bush launched the $15 billion plan in 2003 to expand prevention, treatment and support programs in 15 hard-hit countries, 12 of them African, which account for more than half the world's estimated 33 million AIDS infections. The initiative tied in with a World Health Organization campaign to put 3 million people on AIDS drugs by 2005 — a goal it says was reached in 2007. Some critics, like rockers-turned-advocates Bono and Bob Geldof, have become admirers.

"The Bush regime has been divisive ... created bitterness — but not here in Africa. Here, his administration has saved millions of lives," Geldof wrote in Time Magazine as he accompanied Bush on an Africa trip last February.

"The administration and Bush himself deserve a lot more credit than they received for getting this job done," says Josh Ruxin, assistant professor of public health at Columbia University.

Desperately poor Rwanda, where Ruxin runs a health care project, now has more than 100 centers where people can receive AIDS testing, counseling and treatment, up from just two in 2002.

"I am heartbroken overall by the Bush administration," Ruxin said in a telephone interview. "But from my perch here in Rwanda, it is impossible to deny the results and achievements of PEPFAR. Many Rwandans were made Republicans because this was the first administration that has taken an interest and done something here."

U.S. ambassador Eric Bost brims with superlatives about the achievements of PEPFAR in South Africa, and believes Bush will be judged more kindly in history than on Jan. 21.

Dybul, a specialist in infectious diseases whose title is now U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, concurs.

"It's the largest international health initiative in history for a single disease," he says. "In any other circumstances, he (Bush) would be getting a Nobel prize."