Waiting for God O

barack-is-hopeThis week everyone’s favourite son-of-a-Kenyan-goatherder makes his first trip to Africa as President. People tend not to count his brief stop in Egypt earlier in the year; partly because he was there to deliver an address to the Arab world and partly because he didn’t bring his family. This time the destination is Ghana, the family are in tow and the focus will be firmly on the continent itself.

Make no mistake, Obama is an African superstar – not just in his ancestral Kenya, but here in Zambia and across the continent. In a country that is swamped with cast off US clothing, including many old political campaign t-shirts (you would be amazed how many times Zambians unintentionally ask you “Vote for McKinny in the 53rd Congressional Ward” and the like) anything with his name (or better yet his image) emblazoned on it is gold dust and sold at a premium in the ‘salaula’ markets.

One enterprising individual has even re-branded his version of the plastic sachets of whisky and rum-like alcohol that are widely sold on the streets here for about 15 pence with Obama’s iconic name. The contents still seem capable of permanently blinding the drinker so what Barack would think of this particular honour is unclear.

Perhaps the single most important piece of US policy relating to Africa that Obama inherited from his predecessor was the snappily titled US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). George W. Bush may be short on positive footnotes for his presedential legacy, but PEPFAR is undoubtedly one area by which he can justly stand proud.

As recently as 2003, the most that many African nations could afford in the face of the AIDS pandemic was to palliate the thousands that were dying and to mount public health campaigns to try to prevent the infection spreading further. PEPFAR changed all that by pumping $15 billion over five years, primarily into fifteen focus countries, and in the process saving an estimated 1.5 million lives.

Zambia is one those focus countries and has received over $845 million since 2003. This has had a transformational effect on the countries ability to source and distribute anti-retroviral therapy to the half million or more Zambians that need it. In 2003 only a very wealthy few had access to such medicines, today treatment is free and over 60% access it. There is no questioning the dramatic impact this has had, not only the length but also the quality of hundreds of thousands of Zambian lives.

Despite these very significant advances in treatment, similarly large sums invested in prevention programmes during the period have not shown anything like the same progress. In fact the rate of new infections merely levelled off during the five year period. All this translates into a large and ever growing population of individuals who will require anti-retroviral therapy for the rest of their lives. The bill is already huge and will soon represent more than half of the total Zambian healthcare budget.

PEPFAR was extended for another five years in 2008 but the ability of Obama and the US government to continue to commit to the costs of an ever growing treatment programme in the face of the current financial crisis is clearly under question. The concerns are all the greater when so little progress can be shown in changing behaviours and turning off the tap of new infections.

During the election campaign, Obama made a name for himself for speaking some hard truths to African American men regarding their roles and responsibilities in society – to the point where Rev. Jessie Jackson offered to remove him of his own manhood. One can only hope that during this trip to Africa, this iconic leader of African decent (a quality so rare on the continent) can use his unique status and the same level of candour, particularly when speaking to African men regarding their roles and responsibilites in changing their behaviour and stopping this epidemic spreading any further.

One Response to “Waiting for God O”
  1. Sarah Watson says:

    This is fascinating Berkeley! great insight. Hope you’re doing well

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