Bush bails on Bono

When it comes to Africa and AIDS, Bono still hasn’t found what he’s looking for

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation magazine.

Just weeks ago, U2 frontman Bono was jetting through Africa with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, both men exploring the deep poverty of that continent. With a gaggle of media in tow, the unlikely duo visited cities and villages, often inspecting hospitals, orphanages and clinics where the tragic effects of the AIDS pandemic could be witnessed. One day, O’Neill was filmed tenderly cradling a small baby girl who has AIDS. “Look how cute she is,” he said, visibly moved, as Bono looked on.

By conducting highly visible public appearances with O’Neill and George W. Bush (Bono visited the White House in March when Bush announced a 14 percent boost in the paltry foreign aid budget), the rock star has shared his hipness with the Bush squares. By offering words of encouragement for Bush’s modest foreign aid initiatives, he has granted the administration a seal of semi-approval. To be fair, he has probably prompted the misers to open the purse more than they otherwise would. But when Bush last week announced a supposedly “important new” anti-AIDS program for Africa, it was not only an insult to the millions being killed overseas by this plague, it was a slap in the face to Bono.

At the White House, Bush said, “In Africa, the disease clouds the future of entire nations. … In the hardest hit countries of sub-Sahara Africa, as much as one-third of the adult population is infected with HIV, and 10 percent or more of the school teachers will die of AIDS within five years.” He proposed “to make $500 million available” to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to children. Stopping inherited AIDS is one of the best bang-for-a-buck components of an assault against AIDS. A single dose of medication given at birth will work half the time. This is also one of the least controversial aspects of AIDS prevention because it has nothing to do with sex—or condoms. It focuses on newborns, not adults. Consequently, it does not offend the religious right and cultural conservatives.

So what’s the catch? First, Bush was proposing funding that does not meet the actual need. Second, he was taking credit for money already approved by Congress. Finally, he was covering up the fact that his administration had pressed Congress to lower spending for this activity. Bush was spreading it thick in the Rose Garden.

The president expects his project to prevent nearly 150,000 infant infections over the next five years. The problem is, there are about 800,000 children born with AIDS each year, according to the United Nations. That means the Bush initiative is aiming at helping less than 4 percent of this population. Moreover, $200 million of this supposedly “new” initiative was approved for use this year by Congress days before Bush’s announcement. What he added was $300 million for this type of AIDS prevention in the following two years. Which averages out to $150 million a year—a cut from the current level. It gets worse. At the start of June, several Republicans—notably senators Bill Frist and Jesse Helms—were trying to raise overseas AIDS funding this year by $500 million. But the White House leaned on Frist and Helms and got the pair to slice that to $200 million.

The bottom line? When Bush hailed his initiative as one that would save lives, he could as easily have said, thanks to me, this program will save fewer lives than it would have had Frist and Helms gotten their way. As Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who has worked with Frist and Helms to increase global AIDS funding, griped, “Just as we’ve achieved bipartisan momentum to make a real difference on the toll this devastating disease is taking on Africa, the administration announces a retreat and pretends it’s a forward charge.”

Bush boasts that his administration committed nearly $1 billion to global HIV/AIDS assistance this year and has sent $500 million to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. That sounds like a healthy contribution. But relief and medical groups argue this is far from sufficient. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been pressing the international community to kick in $7 billion to $10 billion a year to the global anti-AIDS fund, with the United States covering about one-fifth of that. Catholic Relief Services has called for a $2 billion increase in U.S. funding for the effort against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, of which half would go to sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 28 million people have AIDS. (AIDS in Africa has left up to 13 million children orphaned.)

Bush shows no signs of rising to the challenge. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently passed—unanimously!—legislation that would more than double U.S. spending on global AIDS, financing treatment vaccines and education and requiring the U.S. government to create a five-year plan to significantly reduce the spread of AIDS overseas. Bush has approved a 13 percent hike in the billion-dollar program. Here’s some budgetary perspective: Under this Senate measure, U.S. funding for anti-AIDS work in Africa (and everywhere else abroad) would be about $2 billion—the amount New York state spends on its HIV/AIDS programs.

On June 10, Stephen Lewis, Kofi Annan’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, delivered a passionate speech to an assembly of religious leaders in Nairobi, Kenya. His words unintentionally provided context for Bush’s recent move. Lewis said:

“There’s never been anything like the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Comparisons with the Black Death of the 14th century are wishful thinking. When AIDS has run its course—if it ever runs its course—it will be seen as an annihilating scourge that dwarfs everything that has gone before. I think we may have reached a curious and deeply distressing lull in the battle against AIDS. The [anti-AIDS] global fund has received no new sizeable contributions for many months. The G8 summit later this month in my country, Canada, has made it clear in advance that significant additional money will not be forthcoming. A series of reports to be released in the near future will acknowledge progress made but at the same time recite blood-chilling statistics on the situation of youth and children—statistics which make you wonder whether the world has fallen into a stupor of indifference.”

Urging his audience to action, Lewis remarked:

“The thing I find by far most emotionally difficult as I travel through Africa, is meeting with you women, stricken by AIDS, who know they’re dying or soon to die, with two or three young children, and they ask me, frantically, ‘What’s going to happen to my children when I’ve passed—who will look after them?’ And then they add, without using these exact words, but the meaning is clear, ‘Mr. White Man, you have the drugs to keep us alive, but we can’t get them. Why? Why must we die?’ And I want to tell you: I don’t know how to answer that. I have never in my adult life witnessed such a blunt assault on basic human morality. In my soul, I honestly believe that an unthinking strain of subterranean racism is the only way to explain the moral default of the developed world, in refusing to provide the resources which could save the mothers of Africa.”

Hours after making his disingenuous AIDS announcement, Bush attended a black-tie Republican fund-raising extravaganza that collected $30 million or so, with a major portion of that coming from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Robert Ingram, GlaxoSmithKline’s chief operating officer, was the numero-uno fund-raiser for the event. This drug company not too long ago tried to prevent the South African government from manufacturing lifesaving anti-AIDS drugs. This event was, sadly, a true Washington moment. After undermining a more generous AIDS initiative, Bush bagged millions from drug companies that have opposed measures to make anti-AIDS medication cheaper and more readily available in Africa.

That day, Bono issued a statement in response to Bush’s “new” AIDS program. “This crisis urgently demands an historic presidential AIDS initiative,” the U2er observed. “This isn’t it, but could be the beginning of it.”

Bono deserves credit for pushing the tightwads of Washington and the West to acknowledge publicly the problems of global poverty and global AIDS. How long, though, can this Irish musician sing a song of hope regarding Bush, O’Neill and the rest, when he still hasn’t found anything close to what he—and those African mothers—are looking for?