VIDEO: Stephen Lewis Delivers Dartmouth College's 2010 Commencement Speech
By Stephen Lewis
June 13, 2010
Stephen Lewis receives an honorary degree and speaks about global citizenship.
Honorary Degree Recipient Stephen Lewis' Commencement Address to Dartmouth College Graduates,
Sunday, June 13, 2010, Hanover, New Hampshire
As you heard, I served as the UN envoy on AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. The nadir of that tenure was 2003. It's impossible to convey the depths of despair and anguish that consumed the high-prevalence countries of Africa.
The specter of death and the reality of death were omnipresent, from the graveyards to the village huts to the hospital wards. There were times when entire countries felt like a charnel house, a virtual cemetery. I remember one particularly awful episode: I was visiting the pediatric ward of the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, with the superintendent, moving from cot to cot, each cot filled with five or six tiny infants, bodies strangled by a combination of malnutrition and what was undoubtedly the AIDS virus.
I had been in the ward for five minutes when an agonizing cry filled the room and reverberated wall to wall like some ghastly other-worldly shriek. I remember convulsively swiveling round to see what in God's name was happening, and there in the corner of the room was a young mother, on her knees by one of the cots, weeping inconsolably as the nurse came in with a white sheet and took the babe away.
What lives with me to this day was that it happened every ten minutes I was in the ward: a wail, a nurse, a sheet, a little morsel of a death.
I remember thinking to myself: has the world gone mad? How is this possible in the first decade of the 21st century? But of course, not only was it possible, but it was happening to huge percentages ... 5, 10, 20, 30, 35 per cent of the population between fifteen and forty-nine years of age, of whole countries, and in the decisive majority, to the women of those countries.
What was so appalling was the fact that by 2003, we had antiretroviral drugs available; to be specific, three drugs in one pill to be taken twice a day. It was called triple-combination therapy. It kept people alive. So powerful and effective were the drugs that they were said to cause the Lazarus effect ... people at death's door suddenly underwent a startling metamorphosis: they got better, they looked after their family, they survived!
But for some reason, the world was paralyzed in its response. It might have been racism, it might have been geography, it might have been indifference; whatever it was the treatment did not roll out, even though, by then, there were generic drug equivalents emerging that made treatment financially possible.
Millions of lives were lost, unnecessarily; millions were put at risk, unnecessarily.
And then something astonishing happened. It came in mortal form: it was called Jim Kim.